ON Wednesday, South Korea refused to grant refugee status to hundreds of Yemenis who fled the catastrophic war in their home country, allowing them to stay here only on temporary humanitarian visas.
The arrival of the Yemeni refugees back in July sparked an unprecedented wave of xenophobia, that saw the anti-refugee sentiment that has swept Europe and the United States rear its ugly head in East Asia.
Despite only 552 Yemenis applying for asylum – a mere fraction of the more than a million that have arrived in Germany since 2015 – the reaction from locals was unsympathetic.
Angry protests were staged in Seoul urging the government to get rid of the “fake refugees” and a record-setting 700,000 signed a petition to tighten refugee laws. Social media became a refugee-bashing platform with, “Is the government crazy? These are Muslims who will rape our daughters!” becoming one of the top comments on Naver, the country’s top Internet portal.
The outcry forced the government to revoke Yemen’s access to the visa-free tourist zone of Jeju where the refugees entered from.
But the reaction triggered by their arrival is drastically disproportionate to the actual number of refugees in the country.
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.
Asylum seekers as a share of the population in South Korea were 0.02 percent in 2017.
Even if you include all foreigners living in South Korea – both legal and undocumented – they amount to only around four percent of the total population. Hardly the dangerous over-running scourge many South Koreans fear.
As Korean Studies professor and writer, Se-Woong Koo, points out in a Korea Expose opinion piece:
“For all of South Korea’s success as a democracy and as a thriving economy, compassion and humanitarian instincts are in short supply.” And he places much of the blame for this squarely at the feet of the government.
For decades, as part of the country’s education system, children were taught that South Korea is a single-blooded nation.
Called danil minjok in Korean, the philosophy is based on the belief that Koreans form a nation, a race, and an ethnic group that shares a unified bloodline and a distinct culture. This idea of racial purity was encouraged to foster national unity.
And it was prevalent up until 2007 when the United Nations advised the Korean government to refrain from using the term.
A report at the time from the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), said the “emphasis placed on the ethnic homogeneity” will be an “obstacle to the promotion of understanding tolerance and friendship among the different ethnic and national groups.”
Changes to the educational curricula and textbooks to include the history and culture of other ethnic groups was also suggested, in the hope it would give young South Koreans a better understanding of other national groups.
The government adhered, but it wasn’t without criticism.
Critics said, having long suffered the invasions of other countries’ and colonisation in the past, the people’s will to retain their national identity was strong and should be respected. Any advice to change the belief lacked an understanding of the particular Korean historical and cultural background, claiming the term “blood purity” was not discriminatory.
Taking its place in the national discourse was damunhwa – or multiculturalism.
While a step in the right direction, the parameters within which “multicultural” is defined are incredibly narrow.
The South Korean government legally defines damunhwa only as Korean people marrying non-Koreans; prevalently a South Korea man marrying a woman from another part of Asia.
This view excludes foreigners coming to the country of their own volition, such as migrant workers, foreign students and, of course, refugees.
The case of the Yemeni refugees, and those that came before them, exposes this limited scope of South Korea’s multiculturalism.