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,, 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 - - 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 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.

1 comment:

Pacific Rim Economist (PacRimEco) said...

Hi Matt,

I have been reading your blog for a few years now, but only felt compelled to comment recently. I think that the anti-refugee movement is a part of a larger anti-foreigner movement that is going on in Korea. I came across this in the Korea Times about foreign marriage brokers:

A part of me does understand Koreans are coming from in the fact that foreigners have traditionally been bad for Korea(Japan invading twice), but much of this nationalism is blown way out of proportion. I think that you will agree that the vast majority of foreigners who have or are working in Korea have benefited that country and themselves. I worry about this trend in Korea as well, and I think that this goes hand in hand with what North Korea would like to see. Which is less/no foreigners in the south eventually.