Hundreds of desperate Yemenis fleeing civil war — more than 550 — arrived on the South Korean island of Jeju and applied for asylum between January and May. In response, more than half a million South Koreans have petitioned President Moon Jae-in to turn away all refugees. Online platforms have become grounds for refugee-bashing. An actual anti-refugee demonstration took place on Saturday in downtown Seoul.
South Korea has long been intolerant of outsiders, but the outrage triggered by this small number of Yemenis arriving on our shores shows how deep xenophobia runs here. For all of South Korea’s success as a democracy and as a thriving economy, compassion and humanitarian instincts are in short supply. And the government bears much of the blame for fostering this selfish mind-set.
As of 2016, slightly more than two million foreigners were living legally in this country. Even when an estimated 210,000 undocumented migrants are counted, foreigners account for only around 4 percent of the total population of about 51 million.
And the number of refugees is negligible. South Korea has accepted only 2.5 percent of all asylum seekers it has screened since 1994 (not counting North Korean defectors), according to Human Rights Watch.
By comparison, asylum seekers as a share of the population in South Korea were 0.02 percent in 2017, while the figure in Germany — one of the most popular destination countries for refugees — was 0.24 percent that same year.
The reaction against the Yemenis, while shocking, is not a surprise. Almost a decade ago, in 2009, an Indian scholar in Seoul pursued a criminal complaint against a South Korean man who hurled racial and sexist slurs at him and his female South Korean companion (who was insulted for being with a dark-skinned man).
The incident prompted much hand-wringing over the enduring hostility to foreigners, especially those who come from less developed countries or have darker skin. Not much has changed since.
In a more recent egregious example, in June 2017, a bar in the popular Itaewon district of Seoul refused an Indian customer. “No Indians,” the bouncer was heard to say. “It is a rule. No Kazakhstan, no Pakistan, no Mongolia, no Saudi Arabia and no Egypt.”
None of this is surprising given South Korea’s education system. For decades, children, myself included, were taught to believe that this is a single-blooded nation — dubbed danil minjok in Korean. This myth of racial purity was promoted to foster national unity.
Only after 2007, when the United Nations urged South Korea to stop promoting this racist notion, did the school curriculum change.
With interracial marriage increasing, especially between South Korean men and women from other parts of Asia, the government has promoted the idea of damunhwa — literally “multiculturalism.” But it’s defined as foreigners marrying South Korean citizens, so the damunhwa paradigm promotes little tolerance for other types of foreigners seeking to stay here long term.
The arrival of the Yemenis coincides with a worsening climate of hate. Misogyny has been on the rise, partly in reaction to women’s more forceful demands for gender equality. The powerful Evangelical lobby and its political allies spread Islamophobia by claiming that “we, too, might become a Muslim state.” The same Christian alliance has also been active in the persecution of South Korea’s fledgling L.G.B.T. community, which had never been widely embraced to begin with.
It would only be right for the Moon administration to take the moral high ground and put an end to this nonsense, but there is little reason for hope. Mr. Moon, who once worked as a human rights lawyer, didn’t hesitate to say that he opposed homosexuality during a televised presidential debate a year ago, showing a lack of sympathy for minorities.
If the government truly believed in fighting bigotry, it would have long since pushed to pass the comprehensive anti-discrimination act that has been stalled in the National Assembly since 2007, but no such initiative is on the horizon.
Jeju is a visa-free zone for tourists from most countries. When pressed on the issue of Yemeni refugees, a presidential spokesperson told journalists on June 20 that Yemen has been added to the list of countries whose citizens cannot enter without a visa. On June 29, the Justice Ministry announced that it was deploying more personnel to expedite the processing of Yemeni asylum seekers, presumably to expel them sooner. The ministry will also push for an overhaul of the Refugee Act, to prevent foreigners from “taking advantage of the refugee system for economic reasons or residency.”
Not all South Koreans are bigots. Polling data from June 20 showed that 39 percent supported accepting Yemeni refugees, while some 49 percent were opposed. There are also several high-profile voices of reason.
“How could we possibly ask our children to love this world if we discriminate against other races, other nations and other religions?” said Jung Woo-sung, a South Korean actor and goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refuge Agency, at a public forum on Wednesday.
Perhaps a better question to ask those South Koreans who seem to be devoid of compassion would be this: How would they expect other countries to treat South Korean refugees in the event of a war with North Korea?
Se-Woong Koo is the publisher of the online magazine Korea Exposé.