Jasmine was born in the Philippines and started biology studies in the south of the archipelago. She married a South Korean mariner in 1996 and two years later she became a naturalized Korean citizen.
She decided to learn Korean and forged a career as a Korean TV star, leveraging her knowledge of English, and became one of Seoul’s first foreign-born civil servants.
In 2012, she was elected to South Korea’s National Assembly as a member of the ruling Saenuri party, becoming the first non-ethnic Korean to serve in the legislature.
The beautiful success story of a Filipina migrant bride, mother of two, media star and politician, brutally stopped in 2010 when her husband died of a heart attack while saving their daughter from drowning in a whirlpool in a mountain stream on a family vacation.
Jasmine subsequently threw herself into her work to become a leading advocate of multiculturalism in South Korea – a country largely isolated from the outside world that exported migrant labour until its rapid economic expansion in the 1970s and 1980s.
She wryly describes the curiosity she attracted as a foreigner in Korea even in the 1990s, not least from her in-laws, compared to the stereotyping suffered by migrants in the country today – where they now represent just 3% of the population, but are not normally eligible for citizenship or even permanent residency, unless they are married to a South Korean.
“Before, they asked how I came here. Sometimes they didn’t even realize that their questions were discriminatory. Now they ask migrants why they came. People think that migrants have come to take something away,” she observes.
Koreans, who see themselves as a tight-knit homogeneous society, are now beginning to grapple with many of the multicultural integration challenges faced by wealthy, industrialized countries worldwide.
Growing numbers of the migrant workers from South, Southeast and East Asia – brought in to take the "dirty, dangerous, and difficult" jobs associated with economic growth – have found ways to stay on, but still face economic and social discrimination.
Lee’s mission to end discrimination, which has led her to become a voice for migrant groups including foreign spouses in Korea, has won her supporters both inside the government and among many Koreans who believe in the country’s multicultural future. Jasmine has overcome adversity and personal tragedy to become one of the most powerful voice for migrants in South Korea.