Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Arrival of South Vietnamese Refugees in Korea in 1975

Last Wednesday the Korea Times published my latest article, about the arrival of Vietnamese refugees in Busan after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. The article opens with a quotation from a July 2, 1975 Korea Times article by Pham Thudung commenting on her appreciation for the Korean Red Cross and the way it helped the refugees. The rest of the article, however, was about the college junior's memory of leaving Vietnam, of how they did not have enough passes for their entire family, and her anguish at having to leave her brother behind.

From the Korea Times, July 2, 1975. 

The refugees were carried from Vietnam by two ROK Navy LSTs on April 26, days before South Vietnam surrendered.

Photo by a crew member of one of the LSTs of Vietnamese at Newport Terminal, near Saigon, preparing to board the LSTs. From the Donga Ilbo, May 22, 1975.

Over a hundred Koreans were left behind, and they gathered in the compound of the Korean Embassy at 107 Nguyen Du Street, where the flag was lowered on April 29, 19 years after the embassy opened. The remaining 148 Koreans were evacuated by the US to Guam, including Korea Times/Hankook Ilbo correspondent Ahn Byung-chan:

From the Korea Times, May 6, 1975.

Before the refugees arrived in Busan, authorities converted a former girls' high school into a refugee camp:


"The former high school where refugees from Vietnam will be accommodated. Water tanks and tents have been prepared." From the Kyonghyang Sinmun, May 12, 1975.

On May 13, the two LSTs arrived in Busan.


From the Korea Times, July 2, 1975.


 "In the land of her father: First steps into a new life of freedom - A baby held by her mother stares with wide eyes at her father's country [followed by] happy children." From the Kyonghyang Sinmun, May 13, 1975.

From the Korea Times, May 14, 1975.

As an aside, their arrival came on a busy day in South Korea:


Park Chung-hee had used the fall of South Vietnam as an opportunity to claim in a speech that Korea's situation was so precarious that urgent measures were needed. This came after Emergency Measure 7 closed Korea University due to protests there (many other universities were soon also closed), and Park urged students to pay attention to the fate of South Vietnam's dissidents. After a million-person rally for total national security at Yeouido, Park issued Emergency Measure 9, which banned all criticism of the government, among other things.

Returning to the refugees, according to a May 14 Korea Times article, Capt. Kwon Sang-ho, who was in charge of the ships, said they had originally left Busan April 9 with relief supplies for Vietnam and arrived April 22. When the war turned for the worst suddenly on April 25, Korean ambassador Kim Yong-hwan asked the ships to load refugees. The LSTs first carried 1,908 refugees, but 567 Vietnamese were unloaded at Phu Quoc Island (near Cambodia) at the request of the Saigon government.

On May 13, 3,000 friends, relatives, and others awaited the LST’s arrival at Busan port, including Busan’s mayor, former Korean ambassador to Vietnam Yu Yang-su, and South Vietnam ambassador to Korea Pham Xuan Chieu.

From the Korea Times, May 14, 1975.

After 17 days at sea, LSTs No. 810 and 815 landed in Busan at 8:35 am on the 13th and began unloading the refugees shortly after 9:00. The refugees were made up of 355 men, 425 women, and 562 children. They included 392 South Vietnamese nationals who had no relatives or any other connection in Korea. They were all ushered into 31 buses and taken to the refugee camp. There was no welcoming ceremony on the pier due to security concerns, and no relatives or friends were allowed into the site of disembarkation.

"At the refugee camp, the evacuees were accommodated in 43 rooms. Some 162 officials and workers are assigned to the refugee camp for treatment of the refugees. They include 25 officials of the relief center, four doctors, 11 nurses, 21 guards, two security officers, 15 Red Cross volunteers, two interpreters, 43 guides and 25 cooks." The Korean government was to spend 107 million won for the initial accommodation of the refugees, who were housed in the former Busan Girls' High School building in Seodaesin-dong. Those refugees with relatives or sponsors in Korea were to start leaving the camp on May 28.

"Rediscovered smiles: After 17 days, Vietnamese refugees embraced by free Korea arrive at a medical relief station and seem to sigh in relief, unsure of what to do next." From the Kyonghyang Sinmun, May 13, 1975.

From the Korea Times, May 14, 1975.

"First breakfast in Daihan [Korea]." From the Donga Ilbo, May 14, 1975.

This little girl seems prepared for Korea. From the Donga Ilbo, June 7, 1975.

Laundry hanging at the refugee camp. From the Kyonghyang Sinmun, May 14, 1975.

Refugees exchange money at a bank counter (which appears to be in a bus). From the Maeil Gyeongje, May 15, 1975.

From the Korea Times, May 25, 1975.

From the Korea Times, May 15, 1975.

From the Korea Times, June 6, 1975.

On May 23, 215 more refugees arrived on the cargo ship Twin Dragon, which had rescued them from four sinking South Vietnamese naval ships and brought them to Busan after Thailand and the US refused to accept them. Below is the route of the Twin Dragon, which left Incheon on April 23, picked up the refugees on May 2, arrived in Bangkok on May 5, left Bangkok May 12, and arrived in Busan on May 23.


The Twin Dragon. From the Kyonghyang Sinmun, May 22, 1975.

From the Korea Times, May 24, 1975.

From the Korea Times, May 24, 1975.

"Vietnamese refugees arriving at the medical relief station. Embraced by the free land of Daihan [Korea], the refugees sigh in relief." From the Kyonghyang Sinmun, May 24, 1975.

One reason I did not spend much time on numbers in my article is that they vary from article to article. The following information is from the Korea Times, unless stated otherwise:

June 14, 1975
  • 1,341 total; 988 Vietnamese, 33 Chinese, 1 Filipino, 319 Koreans.
June 15, 1975
  • 1335 total (revised after arrival at the refugee camp)
May 24, 1975
  • The Twin Dragon carried 215 refugees – 175 men, 40 women
June 4, 1975
  • 1040 total – 820 on LSTs [and so 220 on the Twin Dragon]
December 17, 1975, Korea Herald
  • 546 Vietnamese were still in Korea: 473 who already settled with Korean relatives, and 73 without relatives to be settled in Korea the next day. 1004 already left. 1004 + 546 = 1,550 total. This corresponds with the revised number above of 1335 arrivals on the LSTs and 215 on the Twin Dragon.
January 1, 1976
  • 584 Vietnamese settled in Korea out of a total 1,562, and 978 settled abroad. 78 (rather than 73) on settled in Korea on December 19.
Needless to say, there is quite a bit of variation there.

According to a December 9, 1975 Kyunghyang Sinmun article, the refugees received from the first day enough clothes, bedding, and three meals a day with often changing nutritious menus, and so had been warmly treated by the Korean government and citizens. The refugees had become so used to Korean food, one said, that it was hard to eat rice without kimchi.

Beyond such self-congratulatory material, the article is full of information. As mentioned before, those with ties to Korea were able to leave the refugee camp from May 28, and by June many had expressed a desire to leave Korea. (According to this page, ultimately 697 settled in the US, 506 in Korea, 167 in Canada, 53 in France, 45 in Taiwan, and 14 elsewhere.) After so many refugees emigrated to other countries between May and September, the remaining 118 refugees were moved from the refugee camp at the school to a new one located in 12 classrooms of the former Police School in Goejeong-dong on September 23.

Those without relatives or friends in Korea or overseas to provide money had been given pocket money by the Korean Red Cross, and guides had taken them around the city. Many learned the streets well enough to go shopping in markets or department stores by themselves. At Chuseok, 63 Busan households invited the refugees into their homes to familiarize them with Korean customs and serve them delicious food.

From October 1, a Korean teacher came and taught the refugees Korean from 9am to 12pm every morning. The authorities also took seven young men to the Korean-German vocational training center where they were taught electronic technology every afternoon from 1:00 to 5:00. 23 young women were likewise taken to a women's center every afternoon to learn dressmaking and knitting so as to help them to be able to make a living when they settled in Korea.

According to Son Jeong, head of the refugee camp, he had received around 150 letters thanking the Korean government for its support, including 4 from Din, who had moved to Australia to work as a high school English teacher, and who said he thought of Korea as his second home. Seven children were born in the camp; two were named Busan, after the city that took them in.

The remaining 73 (or 78?) refugees left in the camp moved to homes throughout the nation (except Jeju). As explained in my article, the Office of Labor Affairs arranged jobs for 56 of those refugees who settled in Korea at a variety of companies, including at factories, and the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs provided a subsidy to cover six months of living expenses. Many found adjusting to the cold winter weather to be a challenge.

From the Korea Herald, December 17, 1975.

A few articles discussed their first Tet holiday in January 1976.

From the Korea Times, February 1, 1976.

And I always found this article about first Vietnamese restaurant in Seoul to be interesting.

From the Korea Times, August 13, 1976.

What happened to these Vietnamese refugees in Korea is a question that has crossed my mind more than once. One article in early 1976 suggested they were just going to "become Korean" and blend in. Did their children face prejudice? One would imagine those who married into Korean families might have had an easier time, but it's hard to know for sure.

I was contacted by one of the refugees who ultimately settled in the US, and he wondered where the refugee camp in Busan was. It has taken some searching but I seem to have found the answer.

There is little information about the camp other than that it was at the former location of Busan Girls' High School. What proved helpful in tracking down its location was this page, which alerted me to the fact that the school also served another function with an international connection in the 1950s. In the mid-1950s West Germany sent medical support and the school became the German Red Cross Hospital. Images of it appear in this brief clip:



This blog post provides some interesting historical photos, such as this one:


A larger view of the former school can be seen in the previously-posted photo below:


The building with its portico can also be made out in the background of this photo:


The aforementioned blog post also provided a photo of a stone monument erected in 1997 commemorating the German Red Cross Hospital. More information about the hospital can be found at this blog post, which includes directions to the monument. It can be reached from exit 8 of Dongdaesin station on Busan line 1.


According to Busan Girls' High School's website, it was established in 1945 under the US military government and in April 1946 it moved to Seodaesin-dong 1 ga 53 beonji (서대신동1가 53번지). A US military map from 1946 shows Sunch'i Hospital (부산순치병원) at that location.


Because aspects of this 1946 map are based in part on a 1937 Japanese map, some parts of it could be almost a decade out of date. According to this page, the Japanese-established Busan City Hospital (부산부립병원) moved to a new location in 1936 (currently the location of Busan University Hospital) and at that time it merged with Sunchi Hospital, which was established in 1879 as Busan Isolation Hospital (부산피병원) in response to a cholera outbreak. This merging with Busan City Hospital would have left the building open for use as a school in 1946. In early May 1975 Busan Girls' High School moved west to its current location in Hadan-dong, just in time for it to be converted into a refugee camp. Based on the above clues, this is the likely location of the former school / refugee camp today.


(It should be noted that Goejeong-dong, the location of the former Police School where the remaining refugees were moved on September 23, was further to the west.) Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the school has disappeared and newer development has taken its place, with only the German Hospital monument located a block away there to remind people of its existence. That there is no monument to the refugee camp is not surprising; considering the growing importance of the relationship between Vietnam and South Korea today, a monument to the people who fled the current government would likely not be received with much enthusiasm by Vietnam.

There are some odd connections to be made with the various institutions on the site of the refugee camp. It seems to have first been established as an isolation hospital in the late 1800s, only to become a place to 'isolate' refugees. More positively, it was the site of the German Red Cross Hospital in the mid-1950s, and the Korean Red Cross played a prominent role in operating the refugee camp for Vietnamese two decades later.

Korea's willingness to accept Vietnamese refugees was short-lived, however. As I mentioned here, after "boat people" began trying to escape Vietnam and Cambodia from 1977, South Korea reacted rather differently:
The ROK went out of its way to stop its ships from picking up Indochinese "boat people," firing a captain who did so and confining those boat people who did arrive to a newly built 'Vietnamese people’s relief center'. "Although criticized for such an approach (Koh 2011), officials pressed hard for third-country resettlement, and as a result, not a single Indochinese refugee who arrived between 1977 and 1989 was permitted to settle in South Korea."
That Captain was Jeon Je-yong (전제용), about whom more can be read here (and here and here).

[Update, July 31]

According to this recent Yonhap article, the Vietnamese Refugee Center opened in 1977 at 1008 beonji, Jaesong-dong, Haeundae-gu (해운대구 재송동 1008번지), which at the time was near "Suyeong Airport, the former airport of Busan," which has since been developed into Centum City.


The Refugee Center was closed January 29, 1993 after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the ROK and Vietnam a month previous. "Around 150 refugees who were unable to find a place to settle abroad were able to establish a new home in New Zealand due to the devoted efforts of American businessman John Manor [? 존 매너], then director of the shoe company, and his wife."

Commenter Will found this video about the closure of the Refugee Center, which also includes black and white footage of the Vietnamese refugees arriving in May 1975:



[Back to the original post.]

South Korea's involvement in the Vietnam War highlighted ties going back centuries, helped kick start South Korea's economic development, left a legacy of brutality (which President Moon recently made a statement of regret for), and contributed to the establishment of the Yushin regime (see Tae-yang Kwak's work). It also provided a number of human interest stories, such as the young woman who came to Korea in 1967 looking for the father she'd never seen, who met her mother when he was serving in the Japanese Army in Vietnam during WWII (and who married a Korean, the head of the Vietnam branch of Korean Optics, in Saigon the next year). Other stories refer to Koreans who had served in Vietnam during WWII in the Japanese army and who had stayed on and lived in South Vietnam for decades.

Beyond that, the Vietnamese refugees, especially those who stayed in Korea, were among the first foreigners in modern South Korea to be prepared to adapt to life in Korea by Korean authorities. One wonders if any of that educational material remains, and how it might compare to more recent cultural adaptation programs.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Anti-Refugee Protests: Ordinary citizens, petitions, and K-populism

The Anti-Refugee Protests

Part 1: Xenophobia, the media, and citizens groups
Part 2: The dark side of candlelight protests
Part 3: Ordinary citizens, petitions, and K-populism

On June 21, at the blog of "Ordinary Citizen," the following message was posted:
I am just an ordinary citizen
I am just one among many ordinary citizens.
Politically I don't lean in any direction.
I am not progressive or conservative.
Leaving political views behind, I want to live while at ease in the land where I was born and I want my parents and children to live in a safe world, and with only this in mind I have established this blog.
As I am not someone belonging to any group I am frankly frightened to start this alone, but, with a sense of responsibility, I am trying to start it
I want to protect our country, our citizens, and our family.
Moving forward, I hope that many people will help and participate in rallies against accommodating refugees that may take months to resolve.
The URL of this blog, blog.naver.com/the_public_of_korea, also highlights the ordinary citizen - Korean public connection. At left is an image of Korea's national flower, the Rose of Sharon, and below it is the purpose of the blog - to promote the June 30 anti-refugee rally. The fact that is a blog and not a cafe initially suggested one person was running it, something indicated by the message posted above. While it's possible there was a larger group behind it, and that the above message was constructed so as to attract people with its 'humble member of the public' tone (one similar to the tone of the message by Angma, who suggested the first candlelight protest in 2002 (search for his name here)), the fact that others went on to promote the second anti-refugee protest at a different blog and created a Naver Cafe which is far less subtle in its message makes me think it may indeed have been run by one person (or a small group).

The URL of the Naver Cafe, called the "Citizen Action for Refugee Countermeasures" is a bit more blunt - cafe.naver.com/refugeeout - though it's nothing compared its banner image:


Their poster for the second rally, held July 14 in Seoul, Gwangju, Iksan, and Jeju, reads as follows:

Citizens First
Repatriate the Yemenis in Jeju
Abolish the Refugee Law
Abolish the visa-free [entry] system





The protest took place as planned July 14 in Seoul at Gwanghwamun, but according to this article only 500 turned out this time.

 (From here

(From here

Some of the signs at this protest read:
Abolish the Refugee Law citizens did not consent to – abolish visa-free [entry]
Don't be like Europe,
Denounce biased press reports - demand impartial reports,
Repatriate fake refugees,
Turn your head and look at incidents in Europe now
According to the aforementioned article, protesters repeatedly shouted lines from article 1, paragraph 2, of the constitution: "The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea shall reside in the people, and all state authority shall emanate from the people." Elaborating on the 'citizens first' signs, it was said, "We want to abolish the refugee law and visa-free [entry] system that reverse discriminates against citizens."

Rep. Cho Kyung-tae of the Liberty Korea Party, who on July 12 submitted one bill to abolish the refugee law and another mandating Jeju abolish visa-free entry (other National Assembly representatives are also planning bills) spoke at the rally, saying that much larger countries than Korea, like Russia and China, don't accept many refugees. He called on Moon Jae-in to reply to the petition signed by 700,000 citizens and also promised to "take the lead in abolishing the refugee law and the visa-free entry."

The petition in question, begun on June 13, was titled "Petition to [constitutionally] amend / abolish permission to apply for refugee [status], visa-free entry, and the Refugee Law which allowed illegal refugee application problem on Jeju Island." It gained 714,875 signatures over one month, making it the most signed petition since the Blue House Petition system set was up by Moon Jae-in in August 2017. For more information on this system, this Joongang Ilbo article is useful.

Inspired by the White House petition system (set up in 2011), the Blue House petition system had seen 220,000 petitions registered in its first ten months, and "nearly 700 new ones are submitted daily." As well, "The Blue House promises to give a formal response to petitions that have received 200,000 signatures or more in one month." As the Joongang Ilbo put it,
The petition system has proven popular, but some petitions are malicious and others are just silly. After the South Korean national team’s loss to Sweden in its first World Cup match, a string of petitions emerged demanding some players be expelled from the national team for their disappointing performances.
As well, during this year's winter Olympics, after speed skaters Kim Bo-Reum and Park Ji Woo left their teammate Noh Seon-Yeong behind in a team race (a move which did not benefit them), "a petition was started on President Moon Jae-in’s website asking that Kim and Park be banned from the national team because “it is a clear national disgrace that such people with a personality problem are representing a country in the Olympics.” The petition garnered over 400,000 signatures. As well, a petition calling for the termination of the translator who did the Korean subtitles for the most recent Avengers movie was also posted.

Responding to criticism of such petitions, Ko Min-jung, a deputy Blue House spokesperson, told the Joongang Ilbo that
“While the current system is not entirely free of problems, I nevertheless think the collective wisdom of the masses is working,” she emphasized. “Taking down the petition board,” Ko continued, “would be like taking away a microphone that people now have in their hands to make their voices heard regardless of their social status or age.”
Shin Jang-sik, secretary general of the minor progressive Justice Party, on the other hand, stated that
“What worries me about the petition board is that it could be misused as an outlet for fake news, or a venting of anger or disgust against a particular group of people, rather than a platform to make rightful demands to the government.” 
As the Korea Herald reported, such venting was aimed at the Queer Festival in Seoul:
More than 200,000 Koreans signed an online petition asking the presidential office to disallow the upcoming queer parade, which is scheduled to be held in central Seoul on Saturday. The petition, which was first filed on June 14, asked the authorities to ban two queer events -- the upcoming parade in Seoul and another event that was held in Daegu on June 23. “We are not discriminating against sexual minorities,” the petition reads. “But Seoul City Square belongs to all citizens.” The petitioners called the events “distasteful,” saying some of its content, displayed publicly, is “inappropriate for children.”
While the above petition, which is here, and reached 219,987 signatures, may not be openly hateful, when I searched for it  at the Blue House petition site, (by doing a search for "퀴어축제" (Queer Festival)), I had to go past 82 other petitions, despite only a month having gone by since it was posted. Thirteen were added on July 14 and 15 alone, with titles like "Please call sexual minorities 'sexual perverts,'" "Treating AIDS is a waste of tax-payers' precious money," "Homosexuals are sexual perverts, sex addicts, and mental patients. Oppose the Queer Festival," "Oppose using taxes to treat AIDS that comes from homosexuals," "Permitting the Queer Festival is responsible for future diseases and the confusion of citizens." While the Blue House spokesperson is likely correct about "collective wisdom" in general (few people had signed the above petitions), it is still disturbing that such ideas are posted on the president's website, which can lend a veneer of legitimacy to them.

The Blue House petition system is different than the existing civil petition system that allows people to petition specific government agencies for redress or complaints (such as the Ministry of Employment and Labor). Anti-English Spectrum used civil petitions to the Ministry of Justice to point to "troubling" news reports about foreign English teachers (which they had helped create) and asked that changes be made to the system. But these were not public. AES posted information and sample petitions at its site to mobilize its members to submit petitions, but once posted on government websites they could not be seen.

The Blue House petition system is more reminiscent of the online petitions that Daum hosted, such as one calling for the expulsion of "low quality foreign instructors" in 2005 or one titled "Demand that the National Assembly impeach Lee Myung-bak" in 2008 (which accompanied the candlelight protests and garnered 1.4 million signatures). The Blue House petition system allows people to easily share the petitions via social media and essentially centralizes such petitions on the Blue House website. They are not only potentially legitimized by their association with the Blue House, they are also easy for the media to focus on, and reports by news organizations can attract more signatures to the petitions. As well, some petitions, such as one launched June 21 that was posted merely to promote the June 30 anti-refugee rally, exist only to use the Blue House website as a promotional platform. In the past, signature campaigns on Daum were aided by news reports and could result in media-driven cyber mobs descending on certain websites (like English Spectrum, or even the Olympic Website after the Ohno incident in 2002). And it should not be forgotten that one of the earliest 'internet mobs' to gain media attention worldwide was that which sought to punish the "dog poop girl" of Seoul's Line 2 subway in 2005. As I quoted Linda Lewis (who was drawing on Vincent Brandt) at the time,
the Korean cultural scenario for conflict resolution involves the public expression of grievances by both sides, as a means of informing the neighbors, of shaping local consensus, and of mustering popular support for each side of the argument.
This, however, is presented as a dialectic; both sides present their points of view and the public (or, in villages, the neighbors) listen and choose a side. A petition, however, does not involve a dialectic - it presents a demand with which people can agree or disagree. In this way it is similar, at least in some ways, to a referendum, a topic which John Ralston Saul discussed in Reflections Of A Siamese Twin: Canada At The End Of The Twentieth Century. As he put it,
In a referendum society, language and argument as the central tools of democracy are swept away. They are replaced by a goal-oriented process which reduces the citizen’s real participation to passive acquiescence or refusal; a participation which is expressed through one of two single-syllable words.[Pg 248]
He also wrote that "The point is that this political movement is in constant search of a winning vocabulary." "Not one which describes anything clearly, but what one which is least likely to frighten people."[Pg 253] As I noted above, this is where the "collective wisdom" of the public was applied in not signing openly homophobic petitions, but instead signing one which stated that “We are not discriminating against sexual minorities.” Since the petitions with more moderate language are more likely to draw "yes votes," perhaps this fairly direct engagement with the Blue House isn't such a bad thing after all.

But there is another problem with the Blue House petition system. As the Joongang Ilbo put it, this system
allows the Blue House to lead the national discussion on its domestic agenda and pull the public and media’s attention away from the National Assembly, which is supposed to do the job of listening to constituents’ demands. […] Korea’s parliament received the lowest level of trust, 15 percent, among all state institutions in a Gallup Korea poll conducted last year.
So not only are "language and argument as the central tools of democracy" replaced by the petition with the "winning formula" (moderate vocabulary that will convince people to sign and may even conceal the intentions of those posting the petition), the system also diverts attention from the National Assembly, which, in a healthy democracy, should be a key representative institution. Public distrust of these institutions is precisely what drew so many people into the streets in 2016. As Katherine Moon put it,
“I find worrisome this glorification of South Korea’s protests,” she says. “If governance structures were working properly then citizens normally would be channeling their concerns through institutional processes—reaching out to their elected leaders, going to the courts. Spilling out into the street is a sign of political dysfunction.”
On top of the glorification of protests, there has also been a glorification of the primacy of the citizen. As B.R. Myers noted, a card - one of hundreds - written to the Constitutional Court in December 2016 read: "Honorable judge. The people are above the Constitution. Please consider the hearts and minds of the people." While judges ideally should not be swayed by public feeling, it certainly happened in the case of the GI involved in the 2004 Sinchon stabbing incident:
[T]he judge told me he would give me a self defense sentence which was typically 2+ years… even though I was convicted of attempted murder. Basically the conviction was to appease the people of S. Korea, and the sentence was relative to a "self defense with a deadly weapon" conviction in that country. The judge was truly fair to both parties in that aspect.
While it was fair to the soldier, one wonders if delivering an unwarranted, pro forma verdict to please the public and then making up for it with a light sentence is good for the rule of law. Considering the way people seem to expect courts' decisions to reflect public sentiment, it is perhaps not surprising that Defense Security Command was worried about what might happen if the Constitutional Court did not uphold Park's impeachment against the will of the people. Whatever disrespect for the rule of law such potential protests might have conveyed, however, is outweighed by the DSC's plan for martial law with after-the-fact approval and plans to impede any attempts by the National Assembly to end martial law. And so we see threats - some more serious than others - to Korean democratic institutions from several sides.

In describing the primacy of the citizen, Mike Breen wrote during the 2016 candlelight protests that in Korea,
when popular emotion over an issue reaches a certain critical mass it morphs into a beast that is so powerful that it steps up and overwhelms decision-making on a grand scale. We call the beast "public sentiment," but neither this English translation nor the Korean words really convey what it is. That is because the more accurate naming - the people, the masses, the mob - implies something negative in our individualistic world and fails to convey that the beast is viewed as morally good.
Hence statements like "The people are above the Constitution" are not seen as alarming. Sohn Hak-kyu said something similar during the 2008 candlelight protests: "Public perception is no less important than rational judgement" (as Scott Burgeson described it, this statement "seems less an expression of populist solidarity with 'the people' than an unwitting critique of nationalism run amok.") During those protests, the organizers issued the following ultimatum on June 11, 2008: "If the government decides to ignore the mandate from the people, who hold the sovereign power in this country, we will not hesitate to launch a campaign to drive President Lee Myung-bak out of office." Lee, by that point, had been in power only a few months and had won the 2007 election by a margin of 5 million votes. Burgeson described the 2008 protests as an "attempted coup e'tat – and therefore both anti-constitutional and profoundly anti-democratic in nature." As noted previously, Moon Jae-in, who essentially came to power due to Park Geun-hye's impeachment, unsurprisingly lauded the 2016 candlelight protests as "an honorable civil revolution that inherited [the] spirit [of the 1919 March 1 movement]."

2018: "I am an ROK citizen. Citizens first. Citizens want safety."

As noted above, protesters at the July 14 protests repeatedly shouted lines from article 1, paragraph 2, of the constitution: "The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea shall reside in the people, and all state authority shall emanate from the people." One wonders if, in their perception, this paragraph lauding the role of citizens supersedes everything else in the constitution. It is precisely for this reason, however, that people have been upset at attempts by the Moon Jae-in government to change this paragraph as part of planned revisions to the constitution.


I took the above photo in February 2018 in front of the National Assembly. It reads: "April: Reconciliation (North South Summit), May: Peace (North US Summit), June: Revision of the Constitution (Citizen-centered Constitutional Revision). Brought to you by the Democratic Party."

As Chosun.com reported in February, for three weeks that month at an official website, citizens voted on 28 possible provisions that could be changed in a revised constitution. One provision that gained the most attention was the suggestion that the subject of basic rights in the constitution should be expanded from "citizens" to "people." When the article was written there were 10,494 votes in favor and 9,531 votes against. The pertinent section of the president’s suggested revision reads:
Considering the level of human rights that the international community expects from us and the shape of our society in the era of 2 million foreigners, we need to expand the [definition of who is] subject to fundamental rights. Characterized by respect for innate human rights such as human dignity, the right to pursue happiness, the right to equality, the right to life, freedom of body, freedom of privacy, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, fundamental rights of information, and freedom of study and art, the subject of these fundamental rights is expanded from "citizen" to "people."
This proposed expansion of guarantees to non-citizens was opposed by some. A representative of an online café called "Citizens who love South Korea" described his opposition to this proposed change, saying that giving equal rights to foreigners, such as right to equality, means that they could sue the state for discriminatory treatment, while freedom of religion could provide a means for Islamic radicalism and fundamentalists like IS to enter Korea. Giving them equal rights would remove "the minimum safeguards to protect our nation from external radicalism" and would also lead to another result: "The Republic of Korea will be swarmed with foreigners from poor countries all over the world" As the representative further put it,
The current constitution alone already fully guarantees the rights of foreigners. A serious issue in our country is the problem of discrimination against our own people. Above all, due to the irresponsible inflow of foreign workers and illegal aliens, Korean workers are excluded from the labor market, which leads to serious deprivation of their right to live. Now is not the time to "ladle out rights" to foreigners to whom we have no obligations, but rather it is time to protect the rights of our own citizens. If there is a problem in exercising the basic rights of foreigners, it is a matter to be adjusted and fixed within the boundaries of individual bills.
It's worth noting that Constitutional Court Judge Kim Jong Dae disagreed with the first sentence above. In response to the Vandom case regarding HIV testing of foreign teachers at the Constitutional Court, Judge Kim stated that "[Under] our Constitution only 'citizens' [gungmin] are entitled to fundamental rights while the legal status of foreigners falls within the range of international law and international treaties."

As for the "problem of discrimination against our own people," this was, as noted above, referred to months later at the most recent anti-refugee rally, where protesters said, "We want to abolish the refugee law and visa-free [entry] system that reverse discriminates against citizens." This belief in reverse discrimination is reflected in the opposition to "fake" refugees whose "real reason" for coming to Korea is just to find work, and therefore to steal jobs from Koreans. This kind of rhetoric also appeared when Jasmine Lee, the Philippine-born naturalized Korean citizen who became a Saenuri Party lawmaker in 2012, was targeted in racially-based online attacks. Among the netizens' comments were "We’ll see the truth of multiculturalism that exploits Koreans" or "Korea is a paradise for foreigners. Korea gives foreigners benefits which it doesn’t even give to its nationals. Come to Korea, you can become lawmakers." 

This was quite similar to the netizen comments and parody posters made in 2005 about English teachers, along the lines of 'Come to Korea, you'll be treated like a king.' Mind you, in regard to "unqualified foreign instructors," this attitude goes back much further, to the first use of that term in 1973, in fact. "Courteous Korea has the politeness to entertain guests," wrote the author of a letter to the Kyonghyang Shinmun, "but I worry that we are displaying a very submissive attitude towards foreigners"; the author also criticized "giving unconditional hospitality to foreigners." A Korean journalist's response in 1984 to a Le Monde article about young French men making money in Seoul by teaching English and French offered his opinion that "It’s possible this treatment of foreigners is unreasonably kind," while another journalist a few days later opined in regard to this that the most important thing was for Koreans to "stand up and have some self respect." These attitudes, while similar to those of today, were motivated more by a quest for national self-respect and disdain for submissiveness or sadaejuui. 

While relating this 'economic threat' / 'we should not be so kind to foreigners' rhetoric with the protesters' desire to tighten regulations to restrict Korea's already very low acceptance of refugee petitions has been framed in terms of xenophobia, something else to consider are Korean attitudes toward various marginalized groups historically. Korean survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - and their children born since - had to hide this history in order to marry, while those with visible scarring were mistaken for Hansen's Disease patients. Discrimination against those with Hansen's Disease was even turned against children of patients who tested negative for the disease, as seen when parents pulled all of their children out of a school in Seoul for weeks in 1969 due to the presence of five such children. In that case public sentiment overwhelmed the children's fundamental rights, as the government eventually gave in and removed the students to a separate school.


People with HIV/AIDS have been treated abysmally, even by the hospitals tasked with treating them (many others refuse to treat them), and almost half of respondents to one survey said they would not care for a family member with HIV.

NIMBYism in Korea has been expressed by residents near an empty school in Seoul opposing a plan to convert it into a school for the handicapped, with one resident calling a parent of a handicapped student "fake" (the government has since committed to building more such schools). As well, residents in various Seoul districts have protested the construction of public housing for low-income families and youths because it would lead to "housing price drops" and "slumification of the neighborhood." And when the government built a new housing facility for refugees and asylum seekers at a remote location on Yeongjeong Island, near Incheon International Airport, local residents complained and "worried about the possibility of deteriorating security and devaluation of their assets" despite their residences being "quite far from the facility."

Some of the above cases involve involve marginalization of certain groups of Koreans perceived as being "contaminated." A desire to protect bloodlines from these groups is perhaps not so far removed from fears of nationalists obsessed with "pure blood," though in the case of the anti-refugee movement, blood nationalism is likely overshadowed by a defensive form of nationalism that fears victimization at the hands of outsiders and cultural contamination. It should be noted that the latter two fears were encouraged during Park Chung-hee's rule and then taken up by opponents of Park and his successor, Chun Doo-hwan, and their civic group descendants (such as during the 2008 candlelight protests).

Other cases mentioned above involve protests against inclusive treatment for marginalized groups in the name of preserving existing privilege, generally economic privilege. This is not unrelated to the sentiment expressed in the Korean saying "If one cousin buys land, the other cousin gets a stomachache," a sentiment informed by a constant awareness of one's place within various hierarchies. This is added to by the precariousness of life in Korea, be it under a royal dynasty where corruption was rampant, under colonial rule and war, during the developmental period, or amid the rise of "precarious labor" in the post-IMF period, a precariousness that is summed up by the term "Hell Joseon." Equality of citizens in this context seems to mean something akin to "no one may receive better treatment than me" and perhaps informs the criticism by the anti-refugee protesters of "the refugee law and visa-free [entry] system that reverse discriminates against citizens."

Considering this background, and amid rhetoric like "Hell Joseon" and "reverse discrimination," it isn't surprising that there would be criticism of a system that has seen a large increase in the number of (unvetted) refugee applicants, who are given benefits by the government during the application process. Some of those opposed to the system, like the blogger I quoted at the beginning of this post, who was "just one among many ordinary citizens," have approached the issue in a relatively level-headed manner. That blogger openly disassociated himself from the far right and Christian hate groups. This is a far cry from the extremist language (like 'rapefugees') of the Naver cafe, with images like this predicting gang rapes of Korean women. Perhaps this kind of rhetoric resulted in there being a smaller turnout for the second protest; perhaps there were other reasons.

What is interesting about this movement is that if this was a movement on the left, the existing progressive networks would move in and take over the protests, moving them a predictable direction. Because there is no unifying movement on the right similar to that on the left (due to 'civic groups' being a domain of partisan left-wing groups, and because nationalist historical narratives reward the left more than the right), it is hard to know where this movement might go. While 'hunker down in the minjok bunker'-style nationalism based on fear of exploitation by outsiders of the sort usually applied to Westerners (US soldiers, beef exporters, English teachers) could possibly be adapted to the "protect citizens from outsiders" rhetoric elements of the anti-refugee movement have adopted, and could also be marshaled to urge the defense of Korean sovereignty from "the level of human rights that the international community expects from us," it is not yet clear that the bulk of the Korean public would support this.

An important question that deserves the attention of pollsters is to what degree Koreans support adopting Western norms related to human rights and refugees. To be sure, a vocal group of citizens, including those seen protesting with signs reading "Abolish the Refugee Law citizens did not consent to" and  "Denounce biased press reports" while shouting "all state authority shall emanate from the people," clearly disagree with the direction the government has moved in and argue they must be listened to. The petition could have been a starting point for a conversation in Korea about the Refugee Act, the quickly-growing number of applicants, and the direction people would like to see their country move in. Unfortunately, the platform given to the anti-refugee movement by the Blue House petition system and the attention gained by gathering a small crowd of people for a protest seem to have pushed a number of National Assembly representatives into action as they grasp for relevance. The "winning formula" of the petition that gathered so many signatures has instead become a starting point for immediate action by politicians jumping on the bandwagon to curry favor with citizens who distrust their democratic institutions. If the people are indeed "above the constitution," or, as Mike Breen put it, they believe "the people themselves rule," and the government believes its role is simply to react to the latest burst of outrage to emanate from the people, then does the distrust of the government and the loathing expressed in the term "Hell Joseon" not constitute a form of self-loathing? If that's the case, no amount of legal revision is going to solve that problem, especially when the current Blue House is actively encouraging this form of populism.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Anti-Refugee Protests: The dark side of candlelight protests

The Anti-Refugee Protests

Part 1: Xenophobia, the media, and citizens groups
Part 2: The dark side of candlelight protests
Part 3: Ordinary citizens, petitions, and K-populism

Part 2: The dark side of candlelight protests

Upon looking at photos of the June 30 anti-refugee protests, I was struck by the sight of the protesters holding candles. (Few candles can be seen in photos of the July 14 protest, but there was more daylight in those photos so that's not surprising).

(From here.) 

 But it was not just the anti-refugee protesters holding candles - the pro-refugee demonstrators (below, left) also held them aloft.

(From here.)

The reason for this, I think, derives from two different conceptions of what candlelight protests stand for. One understanding of them is that they are concerned with remembering victims and/or seeking justice. The first candlelight protests, in 2002, were to remember the deaths of two girls killed in an accident involving a US military vehicle.



 In November 2003 a small candlelight vigil was held in Daehangno as a protest against the suneung (CSAT) in Daehangno after a girl in Namwon killed herself on November 5, 2003.



In December 2004, 150 people held a candlelight vigil to protest the police's failure to punish the scores of high school boys who repeatedly gang-raped two girls from Miryang.

"Cheaters are arrested, those who injure younger students, also arrested... Rape is dismissed with a caution???" (From here, where more photos can be found.)

In May 2005 a "Remembrance Event for Students Sacrificed for School Education" was held at Gwanghwamun, which criticized the education system and the pressures that cause students to kill themselves.


(From here.)

It is also popularly remembered that high school girls started the protests against American beef imports in 2008, fearing their lives would be cut short by mad cow disease. And the candlelight protests of late 2016 were described recently by Moon Jae-in as "an honorable civil revolution that inherited [the] spirit [of the 1919 March 1 movement]." With this justice-oriented pedigree involving support for the powerless, it's not surprising those demonstrating in support of refugees would be holding candles.

But there is another, less savory side to the candlelight protests that should not be forgotten, one that reaches back to the first such protests in 2002.


(From here.)

(A quick digression: If not for this Daum cafe post, down the memory hole would have gone the fact that the first candlelight vigil for the girls was held by American soldiers on June 18, 2002 - five days after the fatal accident, when the entire country was gearing up for the Korea-Italy World Cup soccer match that evening.)

What is remembered as the "first" candlelight protest related to the girls was suggested by a netizen named Angma. After watching an episode of MBC's current affairs program PD Diary about the acquittal of soldiers involved in the accident, he was so moved that he left messages on the internet urging people to "commemorate the lives of Mi-seon and Hyo-soon, who were forgotten in the joy of June" by gathering with candles near the US Embassy. These messages gained a great deal of exposure when they were covered by an Ohmynews reporter named Kim Ki-boh - who turned out to be Angma. The candlelight vigil, claiming to be a "cultural event" rather than a political protest (and thus not subject to registration with the police), became a new form of protest that moved beyond the clashes with riot police of previous protests, and so became more likely to draw in a wider variety of participants. Things soon turned ugly, however, as this photo of a December 14, 2002 candlelight protest in front of city hall shows.



At this protest they sang the song "Fucking USA" and "tore several huge U.S. flags to bits before unfurling a Korean flag to shouts of 'We will recover our national pride.'" In the meantime, a nearby restaurant posted this sign:



Worth keeping in mind is the fact that two weeks after the accident that June, North Korean naval vessels attacked a South Korean patrol boat, killing six South Koreans. Little concern was shown about their deaths at the hands of North Koreans, in stark comparison to the reaction to the traffic accident involving US soldiers, which spread widely throughout South Korean society at the time. As well, far from being merely "cultural" in nature, when a coalition of civic groups took over the candlelight protests "The Pan National Committee said it would continue its protests until Dec. 18, the day before the presidential election." Roh Moo-hyun, the progressive candidate these groups favored, was elected the next day.

In March 2004, when Roh was impeached for violating the election law regarding the upcoming National Assembly election, candlelight vigils were again held by citizens opposed to his impeachment, which was ultimately overturned by the constitutional court. Though the protests that time were free of the xenophobia that attended the 2002 protests, media coverage of the impeachment was not entirely free of racist attitudes, as this cartoon, published by the Hankyoreh reveals:


(White or Chinese bloggers stated that it was a right wing coup d'état, impeachment with no reason, that only the citizens would be hurt, and called conservatives 'idiots' while an African savage looked on in confusion.)

As for the 2008 candlelight protests, they were not started by high school students at all, as a poster for the first candlelight protest on May 2 of that year reveals. As I looked at here, the first protest was organized by the Solidarity Struggle for the Impeachment of Lee Myung-bak, based at cafe.daum.net/antimb (which is still active). The group, formed on the day Lee was elected, had been trying to find anything that might anger the public and turn it against Lee. A poster for a protest (which drew only around 200 people) on April 26, a week before the first candlelight protest, shows the different items they were throwing at the wall to see what might stick:


The terms in red above include "disgraceful diplomacy" (for bowing to the Japanese emperor, as pictured), "obliterating the national soul," and "mad cow" (the announcement that US beef would be imported came on April 18). The rally's program was elsewhere described as "Reject the second colony." Though the April 26 rally drew only a small number of people, and farmers' rallies against US beef imports were only lightly attended, the issue exploded when PD Diary broadcast a show which shocked viewers and sowed fear of mad cow disease-tainted US beef. It soon became clear the program had mistranslated and mislabeled certain footage in order to achieve this effect. It also presented research in a misleading way to suggest Koreans were genetically more susceptible to mad cow disease, playing on a victim consciousness (of the "we've been invaded so many times" sort that Park Chung-hee encouraged during his Yushin dictatorship to inculcate support for a strong army) that finds expression in historical narratives and films.

Symbols and memes played an important role in the 2008 protests, and some of the images highlighted the threat posed by American beef, or the US in general. The day before PD Diary aired, michincow.net restarted its website and dusted off a catchy image it had used at anti-US beef protests a year or two earlier (also examined here):



Similar images proliferated on the internet, such as this image of a malevolent American cow threatening the lives of Korean children:


Evil American bull: "Eat lots." (From here)
(I'm pretty certain the US stopped bombing Korean children in the 1950s.)

My favorite was likely this one of Uncle Sam cramming American beef down a boy's throat:


(Edited from an image here)

The candlelight protests that the group aiming to impeach Lee Myung-bak organized grew in size and continued for three months. For a critical take on them, Scott Burgeson's essay "Stranger in Chongno" is worth reading; he attended almost every rally during that period. He described the protests as an attempted coup e'tat and an "assault on Korean democracy by the forces of ideological totalitarianism and reactionary nationalism." Though the target of these protests was the Lee Myung-bak government, fear of outsiders - the US, once again - who would do harm to Koreans was used to rally the public to the side of those organizing the rallies.

It should be clear enough from these examples that, from the beginning, candlelight protests have promoted, at best, a "we must protect the nation" brand of nationalism, and at worst, outright xenophobia of the sort that perceived outsiders - particularly Americans in 2002 and 2008 - as wanting to harm Koreans. And so it should be no surprise that those taking part in an anti-refugee protest would be holding candles, since the partisan, political candlelight protests of 2002 and 2008 promoted sentiments that were rather similar to those of anti-refugee protests.

Signs at May 2008 anti-beef protests read "Protect citizens' sovereignty," "Stop importation." (From here.)

2018: "I am an ROK citizen. Citizens first. Citizens want safety."

In many ways, candlelight protests, at least when the cameras are rolling (as they were not during the after-hours violence in 2008 that left hundreds injured), are an improvement over the violent confrontations of the past. But considering the way they have been used to express nationalism and fear of outsiders such as US soldiers or American beef exporters in the past, we should not be surprised that citizens who believe they are defending the nation from outsiders who would do them harm (or who would use resources that should be set aside for citizens alone) would feel comfortable adopting this form of protest in the same symbolic space (Gwanghwamun, in this case) as previous candlelight protests.

But the message on the signs above - "I am an ROK citizen. Citizens first. Citizens want safety" - points to a larger question surrounding the anti-refugee protests and past candlelight rallies - the role of the citizen in relation to the state. This question, revolving in part around possible changes to the constitution, will be the focus of the next post.