In late 2016, South Koreans took to the streets for months of massive protests against government corruption that became known as the “Candlelight Revolution.” At one point, crowds in Seoul were estimated at over 1 million. The overwhelmingly peaceful protests deposed President Park Geun-hye and landed her behind bars. The protesters achieved tangible results, garnering international praise for their organized, nonviolent political activism.
Now, hundreds of thousands of Koreans are back in the streets, and though they haven’t swelled to quite the same size as the anti-Park demonstrations, they are once again too large to ignore. These protests, which began in June, are against the presence of about 500 Yemeni refugees on the island of Jeju (the nation’s southernmost territory and a tourism hot spot billed as “Korea’s Hawaii”). On an island with 660,000 residents, and in a nation of over 50 million, it’s a negligible amount of people—especially considering that South Korea has the 11th-largest economy in the world. But 500 is considered far too many in a country that accepts fewer refugees than almost any comparable nation. (Only about 4 percent of applicants are accepted.)
More than 3 million Yemenis have been displaced by the brutal war between a U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia–led coalition and the Houthi rebels, and tens of millions more are at risk of cholera and malnutrition. The U.N. has dubbed it the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world. But many Koreans are convinced that the Yemenis are somehow “fake” refugees because they have cellphones and clean clothes.
For a country intimately familiar with wartime refugees resulting from its own bloody conflict, the hostile attitudes can be difficult for foreigners to grasp. Since 1953, up to 300,000 North Koreans have fled the country, and over 30,000 defectors currently live in South Korea.
The Yemenis began trickling in from nearby majority-Muslim country Malaysia (also featuring visa-free access, leading many Yemenis to seek refuge there initially) in December 2017, which is when budget carrier AirAsia began direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Jeju. Previously, the resort island waived visa requirements for many foreign travelers to promote tourism (which has resulted in legions of Chinese travelers drawn by its famous beaches; this is yet another sore spot for locals). The government has since slammed that window shut, removing Yemen from the list of accepted countries for visa-free entry in June. The move elicited international criticism and appeared to be a concession to the protesters.
An anti-asylum online petition broke records last summer, drawing over 700,000 signatures and forcing President Moon Jae-in (himself a child of North Korean wartime refugees) to vow tighter screening and enhanced border control. The government has so far refused to grant the Yemenis official refugee status, instead giving them one-year residence permits and initially containing them to Jeju—where they have received a frigid reception for a subtropical volcanic island.
“I suppose I have a negative viewpoint because Muslims have had a lot of criminals and terrorists in other places” says Park Jong-hee, a 21-year-old college student. “I’m afraid of sexual violence against women.”
Song Jae-hyun, a 38-year-old entertainer, is somewhere in the middle. “Korea does need more policies to promote acceptance of different cultures. Yet there are also many foreign criminals in Jeju, and the people there are concerned about damage to their way of life.”
Widespread youth unemployment and economic disenfranchisement play a role in these sentiments, as does the monocultural country’s deeply ingrained xenophobia and racism. Like its neighbor Japan, South Korea is a country where the foreign population is below 5 percent. Some Jeju residents are so afraid of the asylum-seekers that they no longer allow their children to play outside. There is a widespread perception that the Yemeni refugees are potential job stealers, rapists, or terrorists—or simply that they won’t assimilate.
“The Yemeni refugees do not accept different cultures. My friends in Jeju have told me about this,” Park Jong-hee adds.
The debate over the refugees comes at the same time as a controversy involving K-pop’s biggest act, the boy band BTS. Last month they were featured on Time magazine’s cover, after previously being named one of the 25 most influential people on the internet. In September, the group was invited to speak at the U.N. General Assembly, following in the footsteps of entertainer-activists like Emma Watson. But the group has also come under fire for several incidents, including one where a member was photographed smiling and wearing a Nazi-era SS Death’s Head hat, and another where they posed for a crass photo shoot at a Holocaust memorial. More recently, another member wore a T-shirt depicting two atom-bomb mushroom clouds and a slogan appearing to celebrate the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to more friction between the always-tense relations between Japan and Korea.
Lee Taek-Gwang Lee, a cultural critic and professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, told the Guardian these scandals are symptomatic of the nation’s struggle to reconcile nationalist sentiments with its growing global cultural presence: “BTS insist they are a global brand, but their identity is rooted in Korean nationalism, as it is with many young South Koreans,” he said.
Bigotry and xenophobia can’t shoulder all of the blame—economic conditions and insecurity about the future are also driving these protests. Youth unemployment nationwide is close to 10 percent, and that likely contributed to an all-time low of marriages in 2017. Like their American counterparts, young Koreans are putting off marriage until they feel more economically stable. A popular internet meme among young Koreans is “Hell Joseon,” (meaning “Hell Korea”) which can refer to economic inequality, youth unemployment, the notoriously brutal Korean work culture that is literally killing people, and a host of other social issues. Predictably, President Moon’s approval rating has been falling as the unemployment rate has risen.
Of course, the angriest voices are the loudest, but there’s certainly no shortage of Koreans with more sympathetic views. Lee Jin, a 36-year-old academic director at a private academy (or hagwon) views the refugees through a historical lens. “During and after the Korean War, we got a lot of international help from other countries. It’s important to do something in return, and help these refugees,” she says.
“Racism does contribute, but this young generation doesn’t have a clue about the past, and the favors our country was given—favors that we need to return to others. A lot of people simply don’t want to share even any little piece of the pie.”
Some Jeju residents have been welcoming, opening their homes to these asylum-seekers. Local civic groups, religious organizations, and expat teachers have teamed up to create the Jeju People’s Coalition for Refugee Rights, working to provide food, housing, and Korean language classes for the Yemenis.
Esmail al-Qublani, a 31-year-old Yemeni refugee currently still in Jeju, says that “overall, it was a great welcome. Because this is a tourist island, we actually haven’t encountered much xenophobia.” The hardest part for al-Qublani, a journalist in his home country, has been employment. “Finding work on Jeju island has been very difficult, but now there are more opportunities since a lot of us have traveled to the mainland.” So why are they being labeled “fake” by some Koreans?
“You’d have to ask them,” he says, his voice heavy with exhaustion. “We are only humans. We are refugees from a war. If they can get to know us, they will come to understand our reality by getting to know us one by one—if they want. We’re easy to make friends with.”
Lee Yu-lim, an unemployed 24-year-old woman, noted that “they came to Korea because their life was so hard. I feel empathy for them. And not all Islamic people are terrorists.” As far as the economic effects, Lee sees it as a positive: “They can start businesses, create more jobs, and help to grow the economy.” Indeed, a Yemeni restaurant opened in November: Wardah (Arabic for flower) already seems pretty popular with the locals.
But the hostility remains. Lee Hyang, the leader of an anti-refugee activist group in Jeju, told a Bloomberg reporter the refugees are “not only a threat to our people, but they’re also a threat to our future generation, because of our youth unemployment issue … they’re not even real refugees. If they were women or babies, I would believe them, but they’re able-bodied men. They’re fake, like fake news.”
The bottom line is that even after months, South Korea has refused to grant even a single Yemeni refugee status—although in October, 339 were granted the humanitarian visa. This means they can finally leave the island and travel within the mainland peninsula, but their ability to seek employment is curtailed, and they won’t receive rights that official refugee status would grant (among them health care, labor insurance, and the opportunity to bring their families into the country).
Though it’s one of the world’s richest countries, and one that was founded by a devastating war that sparked its own refugee crisis, many Koreans still aren’t ready to open their country’s door to others.
Benjamin Malcolm contributed reporting to this piece and Song Il-hong assisted with translation.