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Super Bowl Hero's Korea Visit Inspires Reflections About Race Attitudes

South Korea is rolling out the red carpet for a top U.S. athlete, who is half Korean. While the high-profile visit is generating Korean pride, it is also shining a spotlight on long-held attitudes about race that have caused pain for many South Koreans.

Perhaps for the first time in the country's history, the country's president played catch with an American football Tuesday inside his official residence, the Blue House.

At the receiving end of the toss from President Roh Moo-hyun: Hines Ward - the Pittsburgh Steelers star whose performance in the American football championship this year earned him the game's Most Valuable Player Award.

President Roh says Hines Ward provides a role model for Korean teenagers.

Ward was born in South Korea, but grew up in the United States. His mother is Korean and his father is an African-American who served as a soldier in South Korea, but later became estranged from the family.

Many South Koreans are celebrating Ward's decision to retrace his Korean roots in a spirit of nationalistic triumph. Ward says he is proud to be Korean.

"I have the best of both worlds - African-American and Korean customs," Ward said. " So I'm very privileged, and very blessed, to have two backgrounds to choose from."

This week, Ward is being chased by politicians, corporate sponsors and media - all eager for time with South Korea's latest adopted hero. But this is far from typical of the treatment that mixed-race Koreans say they experience. Yeo Han-gu, of the minority advocacy group HiFamily, says reality is quite a bit colder.

In South Korea's ethnically homogeneous society, Yeo says mixed-race Koreans are often ignored and excluded from education and employment opportunities.

Discrimination sometimes takes the form of harsh verbal harassment. Ward's mother says she chose to live in the United States to avoid that harassment. Even Ward himself says he was once ashamed of his mixed race, because of teasing he received as a boy from Koreans living in the United States.

Like Hines Ward, Michael Hurt has a Korean mother, and an African-American father. As a doctoral student in ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, he has been looking very closely at South Korean racial attitudes.

"Especially given that we [South Korea] have the lowest birthrate in the world," he noted. " There's all kind if reasons to open things up, but the only thing holding Korea back are these old-fashioned notions of race and people."

Whether mainstream South Korean attitudes are evolving, the population is. Recent statistics indicate as many as a third of South Korean men in rural areas marry women from abroad, which will lead to an increase in ethnically mixed children.

Ward Hines will be speaking to a group of such students on Saturday. He says he hopes he can help them take pride in their identity.