The Yemeni refugees who entered South Korea earlier this year should have been a nonstory. Only 561 escapees from the ongoing Saudi-led war in Yemen made it to Korea’s Jeju Province, where 552 applied for asylum, a pittance compared to, say, Germany, which handled approximately 890,000 asylum-seekers in 2015. The Yemeni refugees were confined to the island of Jeju, hardly in a position to interact with the South Korean population at large, much less compete for a job or pose a threat in any way.
Yet the South Korean public reacted to these handful of refugees with hysteria. The petition to liberal President Moon Jae-in demanding the government not accept the refugees garnered more than 700,000 signatures—the highest number since the Blue House opened its online petition system in August 2017. The response to the petition highlights the problems that South Korea’s liberal government is facing as it copes with the legacy of a poisonous conservatism, and with the demands of a public that has become acutely sensitive to race.
The Moon administration responded swiftly: Although Jeju is a tropical island province that allows visa-free entry for visitors from most countries in order to promote tourism, on June 1, the government added Yemen to the small list of countries (including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo) excluded from the policy, effectively prohibiting more Yemeni refugees from reaching the country to claim refugee status. The government also prohibited the asylum-seekers from leaving the island and entering the mainland Korean Peninsula.
The response to the Blue House petition, given by Justice Minister Park Sang-ki and the Blue House’s new media secretary, Chung Hye-seung, on Aug. 1, did reaffirm South Korea’s international obligations toward refugees. In the video response, Chung reminded the viewers that the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, the constitutional precursor to the current South Korean government, was a government-in-exile established by Korean refugees in Shanghai who had escaped Japanese colonial rule. Park affirmed that the Yemeni refugees entered South Korea legally. He stated that, contrary to the petition’s extreme demands, South Korea has no intention of withdrawing from the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the international treaty that sets forth basic international obligation toward refugees, nor would it abolish Jeju’s visa-free policy. Park also proposed establishing a special tribunal for refugees, staffed with area and language experts, as per United Nations recommendations.
Yet Park’s response also included concessions to the xenophobic hysteria. He said there would be efforts to root out “fake refugees” by, for example, testing them for drugs and screening them for a criminal record—echoing two persistent stereotypes of foreigners in South Korea. He also announced additional penalties for “refugee brokers who promote illegalities.” And the Ministry of Justice also doubled the number of countries excluded from the visa-free entry policy, adding 12 additional countries including Egypt, Pakistan, and Somalia. While Park stressed that refugees have legal rights, he also emphasized that refugees who “contravene the social order” could be deported.
It is easy to be disappointed at this response coming from a liberal administration, one that was born out of the heroic monthslong protests that resulted in the impeachment and removal of the deeply corrupt and authoritarian President Park Geun-hye. Yet polling reveals the dispiriting reason why the Moon administration is at least partially pandering to anti-refugee sentiments: The issue potentially poses the greatest threat to the administration’s stability yet, as it strikes at the foundation of its support, namely young voters, women, and the middle class.
In a recent survey, conducted by Hankook Research, 56 percent of those surveyed opposed admitting the Yemeni refugees, while only 24 percent supported letting them in. But women objected more strongly than men (61 percent to 51 percent), respondents in their 20s (70 percent) and 30s (66 percent) objected the most among all age groups, and middle-income households (62 percent) expressed the strongest objections against admitting the refugees.
This is a surprising result, as women, the young, and the affluent are groups generally associated with more generosity toward migrants and refugees. Yet on the ground, grotesque marriages between progressive principles and Islamophobia abound. One might expect, for example, that South Korean feminists newly energized from a highly successful #MeToo campaign would express solidarity with the vulnerable refugees. Instead, many feminists reinforce myths that Muslim refugees are potential rapists, drawing from a mixture of real and fake news from Europe.
In late July and early August, one of the trending hashtags on Korean-language Twitter was #제주도여성실종사건 (“Missing Women in Jeju-do”), pointing to a string of six women found dead in Jeju in the past two months and blaming the refugees. One tweet that received more than 5,000 retweets reads: “As a Jeju resident, I’m [expletive] nervous. There was a note saying they will kill women at the library next to my school. All I see around me are refugees and the Chinese. It’s only been two months, but there are six women found dead.” In addition to the “Missing Women” hashtag, the tweet also has the hashtag #제주도여성안전권보장하라 (“Secure safety rights for Jeju women”).
To be sure, when broken down by political leanings, South Korea’s self-identified progressives opposed the refugees least (49 percent) compared to self-identified centrists and conservatives (60 percent and 61 percent, respectively). But for an administration that’s looking for broad-based support to enact wide-ranging domestic economic policies while pursuing peace with North Korea, losing ground with its base is a cause for great concern.
There should be no doubt that the general atmosphere of racism and xenophobia fuels the South Korean public’s hysteria against the refugees. Yet they alone do not account for this particular result, in which members of South Korea’s best-traveled and best-educated demographics are the ones who most fervently oppose the Yemeni refugees.
The rise of the politics of hate in South Korea in the past decade illuminates this apparent paradox. As high-speed internet became available in South Korea earlier than in any other country in the world, it experienced the internet’s downsides earlier than elsewhere as well. This included a collection of young men sharing racist and sexist memes in order to spite and hurt others—in a sense, the world’s first alt-right, in that these young men participated in conservative politics for the sake of nihilism and hate. The young and affluent also spend the most time online and thus are the most likely to pick up on the corrosive influence of social media’s racism.
The previous conservative governments—Lee Myung-bak’s and Park Geun-hye’s administrations, which collectively ran from 2008 to 2017—provided material assistance to these young online trolls, turning them into a political force. Under the Lee administration, for example, South Korea’s intelligence agency consulted psychologists to create the most damaging and humiliating edited images of liberal politicians and activists. The spy agency ran a division of agents dedicated to being professional internet trolls, spreading false rumors about liberal celebrities and promoting the insulting memes. The government bankrolled the far-right online media by forcing corporations to buy advertisements on them. The Park government paid conservative civic groups, which would stage massive protests or petition drives with paid participants.
The Yemeni refugees in Jeju present ideal new fodder for this politics of hate. For the conservative Liberty Korea Party, which was pushed to the brink after its crushing defeat in the recent local elections, continuing its past presidents’ tactics of demonizing refugees offers a path toward political survival. The party may not have created South Korea’s xenophobia, but it is certainly stoking it for political gain. The recent symposium hosted by National Assemblyman Kim Jin-tae of the Liberty Korea Party was a parade of bigotry. Professor Shin Man-seob of Seokyeong University, for example, asked: “The [European] countries that created the mass of refugees should resolve the issue themselves—why must South Korea handle this issue?” Ryu Byeong-gyun, the president of the anti-immigration organization National Alliance for Loving Our Culture, claimed falsely: “The Korean War did create a large number of refugees, but the refugees all remained in the Korean Peninsula.” Author Hong Ji-soo, a self-styled expert on Islamic culture, blamed the religion for promoting violence and terrorism.
Unfortunately, these claims—however false and prejudiced they may be—are gaining traction. The refugee issue pushed Moon’s approval rating to the lowest point since he took office, at 62 percent—an excellent number objectively, but a big drop from 79 percent that Moon was enjoying as recently as the second week of June, when the refugee issue began to emerge.
It is a remarkable turn of events considering all that the Moon administration has gone through in the past year: walking a tightrope between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump over the North’s nuclear weapons, putting two former presidents in prison for corruption charges, significantly raising the minimum wage, and implementing wide-ranging reforms of a dangerously out-of-control military—all of these without denting Moon’s popularity with the South Korean public. One might hope that the Moon administration would respond more powerfully in defending a handful of desperate refugees against racism. But when the issue has become more explosive than North Korea’s nuclear weapons, it might be a little much to expect the administration to show greater political courage.