A year on from the sudden arrival of some 500 Yemeni refugees on the resort island of Jeju, it is worth asking why non-North Korean refugees are generally not as accepted in South Korea.
What does South Korea’s failure to provide moral leadership in the face of a global refugee crisis tell us about entrenched ideologies of ethnic nationalism in one of the region’s wealthiest liberal democratic states?
South Korea is legally obligated to accept asylum seekers, having signed the 1951 United Nations’ Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1992, and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Although a signatory to these treaties, South Korea has not committed itself to anywhere approaching the same level of asylum as other wealthy, democratic states in Europe or North America.
Instead, South Korea is placing itself as a donor state, providing financial assistance to international organizations working with asylum seekers.
South Korea’s checkbook humanitarianism does not extend to resettling non-North Korean asylum seekers. For example, according to the UNHCR, since 1994 South Korea has only accepted 2.5% of non-North Korean asylum applicants.
More recently, from January until October 2017, the government accepted just 96 of 7,291 applications for asylum from non-North Korean applicants.
In 2018 around 1000 individuals requested asylum in Jeju, an island off South Korea’s south coast. Of that number, just over 500 were Yemenis fleeing the civil war.
Many had fled Yemen to Malaysia. Once in Malaysia, they made use of the cheap AirAsia flights from Kuala Lumpur to Jeju, and the visa-free program designed to attract tourists to the island.
In June 2018, the Korean government responded to public pressure by removing Yemen from its visa waiver list and banning asylum seekers from leaving Jeju Island for the mainland.
Why are North Koreans “acceptable refugees”?
The closing of the visa loophole immediately impacted on asylum applications; from June 2018 until September of the same year the number of people applying for asylum in South Korea dropped from 2260 to 839.
The UN requested that South Korea accept more applicants. But Moon, the son of North Korean refugees, is concerned about what a more humane approach would do to his already falling popularity.
Instead, his administration’s response has reduced asylum seekers down to their bare humanity: their religion (Islam), their gender (predominantly male), their physical and cultural differences.
Once they are framed as merely young, Muslim, and men they are securitized, imagined as a threat to the public and the nation.
The language of Korean ethnic nationalism is being used to exclude people for whom leaving their country was a matter of choosing life over death. But this same rhetoric explains why North Korean asylum seekers are, for the most part, welcomed in South Korea.
Over 32,000 North Koreans have resettled in South Korea. Why are North Koreans “acceptable refugees”? After all, unlike Yemeni refugees, North Koreans are from an enemy state, so why accept their applications for refuge?
In most cases of outward migration from North Korea, we see negative push factors like an absence of political freedom and a lack of economic opportunities. In extreme cases, such as during the famine of the 1990s, leaving the country may have been the only way for a struggling North Korean to survive.
Negative push factors combine with positive pull factors like political and religious freedoms, the guarantee of improved access to resources or the lure of consumer capitalism.
If the pull factor of consumer capitalism fosters a desire in North Koreans to migrate to South Korea, then the legal framework of the South Korean constitution makes resettlement relatively simple. Article 3 of the South Korean Constitution states, ‘The territory of the Republic of Korea (the ROK/South Korea) shall consist of the Korean peninsula and its adjacent islands.’
Simply put, in South Korean law, North Korea is regarded as South Korean territory and citizens of North Korea are also citizens of the South. This means that moving from North to South Korea is, if you like, moving from northern Korea to southern Korea.
A further pull factor is ethnic nationalism, the idea that the nation is imagined as inseparable from the identity of an ethnic group—usually the dominant ethnic group within the sovereign boundaries of a country.
In this case, Korean ethnic nationalism is entirely inclusive of ethnic Koreans — if you are Korean, then you belong within the community. The flip side is that ethnic nationalism is exclusionary towards anyone who is not part of the ethnic group.
Korean ethnic nationalism – the idea of a homogenous community in which everyone shares a history, culture, and DNA is prevalent in both North and South Korea. It is perhaps one of the few things both sides agree on: that they are one people tragically, but temporarily, divided.
WHEN PROMISES MEET REALITY
Some 70 years since the division of the Korean Peninsula the idea of being one people is no longer enough to bridge the gap between the two Koreas. The problem is one of expectations: South Korea, with all its modern attractions, is often a disappointment for North Koreans.
Just like asylum seekers from Yemen, North Koreans arrive in South Korea with little other than the clothes on their back. They struggle with the Korean language as it is spoken in the south, they struggle with the challenges of capitalism and with developing social networks needed to engage with upward social mobility.
Ethnic nationalism trumps both ideological difference and the reality that the two Koreas are now very different
Many North Koreans in the South thus feel like the promises made in the television dramas and films they watched have not borne fruit.
South Korea fought a war against the North and its leader, Kim Jong Un, continues to threaten the existence of South Korea with his nuclear program. But for the South Korean public and the Moon administration, North Koreans are redeemable.
North Koreans are understood not as the enemy, but as fallen brother and sisters and victims of a corrupt ideology. As victims, they need the firm hand of a guiding big brother figure to set them on the straight path.
Again, Korean ethnic nationalism trumps both ideological difference and the reality that the two Koreas are now very different.
In contrast, asylum seekers from the Middle East are not part of the ethnic community. In fact, they are far worse, as they are regarded as ‘too foreign’ in every way: appearance, religion, and cultural practices.
Sadly, it seems that the South Korean response to asylum seekers from anywhere other than North Korea mirrors the worst aspects of European and North American humanitarian policies. It is a case of the head over the heart, asking not, ‘What can I do for you?’ But, ‘What can you do for me?’
In the end, unless the rhetoric of ethnic-nationalism is discarded, both sides will lose: non-Korean asylum seekers fleeing persecution and conflict will not gain the security they need to start secure, safe, lives.
And the Moon administration will miss the chance for a moral victory that would show South Korea as a strong middle power, both economically and morally, in a world that so badly needs such leadership.
A year on from the sudden arrival of some 500 Yemeni refugees on the resort island of Jeju, it is worth asking why non-North Korean refugees are generally not as accepted in South Korea.What does South Korea’s failure to provide moral leadership in the face of a global refugee crisis tell us about entrenched ideologies of ethnic nationalism in one of the region’s wealthiest liberal
Dr. Markus Bell is a cultural anthropologist and lecturer in the University of Sheffield's School of East Asian Studies. A graduate of the Australian National University, he is a specialist of migration and forced movement in contemporary Asia. Follow him @mpsbell