South Korea's refugee debate eclipses a deeper, more fundamental question

South Korea's refugee debate eclipses a deeper, more fundamental question
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If you haven’t heard, South Korea is facing a refugee crisis.

We’re talking about the influx of Yemeni asylum seekers — an estimated 550 — who have been arriving in South Korea’s Jeju resort island since January this year. This number pales in magnitude and scale when compared with certain European countries that have embraced refugees. Germany, for example, processed almost 900,000 refugee applications at the height of its migrant crisis in 2015. Yet, the South Korean public has been quick to react to the presence of unfamiliar faces in the country, calling for the Blue House to revise its policy on asylum seekers.

Asylees from war-ravaged Yemen flew to South Korea from Malaysia, where they had stayed visa-free for 90 days, once Malaysia opened up cheap direct flights to Jeju. At that time, Jeju had allowed foreign travelers to stay for 30 days without a visa to encourage tourism, making it an attractive destination for refugees. The sudden inflow of Yemeni refugees in recent days prompted the Korean government to add Yemen to the list of countries whose nationals require official visas to enter the country in early June.


For South Korea, which, despite its globalized economy and a fairly circumscribed embrace of multiculturalism, the entry of Yemeni refugees has heightened the population’s mistrust in foreigners and fear that their jobs will be taken by outsiders. Some citizens are concerned that the predominantly male refugee population could pose a threat to the safety of Korean women; others with preconceived notions about Islam claim that the religion is not compatible with Korean culture. Recently, more than half a million South Korean citizens protested the government’s embrace of the asylees by signing a petition that the Blue House put the needs of Koreans before refugees. Last week, South Koreans staged a protest to pressure the government to expel the existing refugees from the country.

The South Korean government began accepting refugee applications in 1994, after adhering to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In 2013, Seoul became the first Asian country to allow protection for refugees that have sufficient grounds for seeking asylum (e.g., persecution based on race, nationality, religion or political views). When the South Korean public went up in arms about the country’s refugee policy, however, the Justice Ministry announced plans to revise its Refugee Act to prevent asylees from abusing the law by entering or staying illegally. Additionally, the government will increase the number of reviewers of refugee applications to “meticulously review potential for problems including terrorism and violent crime.”

Given South Korea’s long-held pride as a single-blooded nation, and in light of the political and economic repercussions faced by countries with an accommodating refugee policy — not to mention Seoul’s own domestic economic woes and the ever-present threat of terrorism around the world, South Koreans’ reactions to the paltry number of Yemeni refugees entering the country do not come from left field. For some, this small number of foreigners in such a short span of time lends the perception that if the Korean government does not promptly regulate refugee admissions to the country and establish measures to protect the rights of South Korean citizens, as well as those of the asylees, the country could face even more serious economic and political costs in the long run. Not an entirely invalid concern.

At the core of the debate on South Korea’s refugee policy, however, lies the deeper, more fundamental question about Seoul’s identity. South Korea long has been a homogeneous society and only recently embraced the notion of foreigners living alongside native Koreans. And even this embrace is still pretty confined to a specific group — established, well-educated students, businessmen and elites from wealthy countries. As Seoul continues to increase its footprints in the global stage, and so long as conflicts remain around the world, the “immigration debate” will persist as a national issue for South Korea’s political, cultural, social, and academic circles to grapple with.

South Korean citizens’ fears about the potential economic and safety fallout resulting from an uncontrolled influx of foreign migrants — though stemming largely from misinformation and prejudices — are not completely outlandish. But shutting the door on all refugees (as protesters seem to demand) does little to enhance South Korea’s image as a truly internationalized country. An extreme policy as such is anachronous and can only harm the country’s political stature and economic growth opportunities at home and abroad. If anything, an insular, Islamophobic approach toward refugees could actually make Seoul a greater target for terrorists.

Conversely, a nondiscriminatory open-door policy to all refugees without a workable welfare and settlement program in place has commensurate deleterious consequences. From a security angle, a no-holds-barred refugee program does — as critics have pointed out — make South Korea a popular destination for criminals and individuals seeking to gain economic benefits. Additionally, without a cohesive, articulated settlement program, the South Korean public will perceive the migrants as an unwarranted economic burden and express greater frustration toward the government’s ineffective policies.

It seems both the South Korean public and the Blue House are viewing the recent developments on Yemeni refugees in Jeju island through a myopic lens. For the South Korean population, it’s about their immediate safety and daily livelihood. For the government, it’s about finding an answer to quell the public’s discontent — not necessarily about a long-term solution to prevent the problem from metastasizing into something greater. But really, Korea needs a strategic, abiding solution to deal with the changing demographics and more broadly, to a transforming global landscape.

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime's leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program. Follow her on Twitter @mllesookim.