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 1: Xenophobia, the media, and citizens groups
This post started when I saw images of people at the June 30 anti-refugee rally holding candles, but, as is par for the course when I start doing research, it quickly expanded into something larger, so it will appear in three parts. In the first I apply to the anti-refugee movement the lessons learned from researching the Citizens Movement for the Expulsion of Illegal Foreign Language Instructors (or Anti-English Spectrum). In the second and third parts I'll explore the role of populism in the form of petitions to the president and candlelight protests.
On June 30, a protest was held at Gwanghwamun in Seoul to call for the abolition of the Refugee Act and no-visa entry in response to the arrival in Jeju of over 500 Yemenis seeking refugee status. This issue has been developing for a few months now, but came to public attention over the last month or so. The Yemeni refugees in Jeju were able to apply for refugee status there due to its visa-free arrival policy for tourists and the recent opening of direct flights there from Malaysia, where many Yemenis have fled to. For more background, the best article is "Yemeni Refugees Languish on South Korea’s Holiday Island" by Darryl Coote, who has been in direct contact with the refugees in Jeju.
I wrote about Korea's stinginess in accepting refugees back in 2005, and though things have improved since then, it was a pretty low bar to begin with. As the Korea Times put it, "Korea is known as one of the most rigid countries when it comes to granting legal refugee status to foreigners. Among 32,733 applicants between 1994 and 2017, only 792 were successful." One prominent change since I wrote about this topic in 2005 was the passage of the Refugee Act, which was passed in 2012 and enacted in 2013. A detailed examination of the act can be found here. Statistics seem to vary but by the end of 2012 between 4,000 and 5,000 people had applied for refugee status. Since the passage of the Act, according to the graphic and statistics here, under 2,000 applied in 2013, over 3,000 in 2014, over 5,500 in 2015, and 7,495 in 2016. As this Korea Times article notes, of 9,942 applicants in 2017, only 121 applicants gained refugee status, or "1.21 percent, lower than 1.29 percent in 2016 and 1.83 percent in 2015." So, while the number of applicants has quickly grown, the percentage of those being accepted has dropped. However, as the Times article puts it,
There are group of people called "humanitarian status holders," who are in between those who got the refugee status and those who are forced to return home. According to the data obtained by Rep. Hong, the number of humanitarian status holders tends to grow ― 318 in 2017, 246 in 2016, 194 in 2015, 539 in 2014, six in 2013. For the last 10 years, 1,425 people have gained the status.Syrian refugees are generally given this status as fleeing war has not been seen as a reason to award refugee status. As well, "[a]ctivists believe the government tries not to endorse them as refugees, since the status involves living expenses and health insurance. They can also invite their families to Korea, which can snowball the number of refugees." Over the last few years, the civil war in Yemen has led to a spike in the number of Yemeni refugee applicants. As the Korea Herald put it, "Of the 40 Yemeni nationals that have sought asylum in Korea from 2016 to 2017, 14 have been granted refugee status and given protection under the refugee law. Eighteen were granted 'humanitarian stay permits.'"
Those who criticize the Refugee Act do so for various reasons, including for allowing what appears to them as overly favorable treatment of foreigners and for making it easier for refugees to apply for asylum, leading to a large increase in their number since the law was passed. Despite the fact that very few refugees are accepted, the arrival of the Yemeni refugees on Jeju has caused fear of these refugees to overtake a vocal group of Koreans. This has taken the form of "gendered Islamophobia" influenced by conservative Christian churches (though not all churches agree with this), which decries rewarding "fake refugees," and has led to a Blue House citizens’ petition calling for the revocation of refugee application permits for the refugees. The petition, begun on June 13, gained 714,875 signatures over one month. Some who criticize accepting refugees oppose allowing them to stay and work in the country and giving them aid (like access to medical treatment or education) while they await a decision on their petition.
The culmination of this was the first protest on June 30, which was attended by 1,000 people. There's a good article on how this relates to Korean xenophobia by Se-Woong Koo at Korea Expose. In it, he cites several examples of discriminatory treatment of non Koreans, including the 2009 case of Bonojit Hussain, a foreign professor who had racist insults hurled at him by a Korean man for being with a Korean woman, who was also attacked. Though he asserted at the time that "It wouldn't have happened to me if I were a white man,'' insulting Korean women for being with Western men has a long pedigree, as incidents from the 1940s, 1980s, or 1990s reveal. One such incident in 1992 left the offending foreigner, a GI, dead. A similar fate befell an English teacher who was stabbed to death - in the high school he worked at - in 1998 by a man who "didn't want Americans here teaching Korean children" and who thought "foreigners should not be allowed to hold jobs here while many Koreans are unemployed."
That these kinds of incidents involving GIs and foreign English teachers were not included among the examples of racial discrimination in the Korea Expose article is not all that surprising. As a group, they have been perceived to be white American males who are more privileged than other foreigners (though women now make up 55% of E-2 visa holders), and, beyond incidents generated by bitterness at interracial coupling, negative feeling toward them is often closely related to what could be termed a post-colonial reaction to American hegemony in its manifestations as a military presence in Korea on the one hand and the need for mastery of English to advance in Korean society on the other. Thus these groups have been considered undeserving of much sympathy or attention when examining discrimination in Korea, which is one of the reasons why negative news reports about GIs and English teachers continued unchecked for years (in the 1990s and early 2000s for GIs, and for a decade after the 2005 English Spectrum Incident for English teachers).
These tendencies in regard to English teachers manifested themselves in instances like JTBC describing consensual sex between white men and Korean women as "sex crimes" or NoCut News, the online news site of the Christian Broadcasting System, publishing a 9-part series titled "The Reality and Twisted Values of Some White Men." Such reporting was also exported to the US when Joohee Cho, whose mission was to "correct biased views on Korea by the foreign press...and make it my duty to accurately and objectively report issues and affairs in Korea," wrote the following article for ABC News:
(It has since been removed.)
That they reported on foreign teachers' drug or sex crimes was no surprise, but there are various cases that illustrate and confirm a bias against them in the media. It could be noted, for example, that the murder of the foreign teacher in his school in 1998 was not reported by the Korean media. A clearer example of bias is to be found by comparing media coverage of an American English teacher who was extradited for an alleged sex crime against a child back home at the same time a Korean elementary school principal was sentenced to prison for molesting 9 students. The American's case was reported five times more than the Korean principal's, and half of the 70 reports on the foreign teacher appeared on television news - compared to none for the Korean principal. Likewise, images like this Munhwa Ilbo cartoon, of the aforementioned extradited teacher, were certainly not used to illustrate the Korean principal:
'Their true, foul, beastly nature'
Above is a US soldier menacing a South Korean woman in a 1990 North Korean comic book titled "Sick and Rotten World." Like night and day, aren't they? Should the Koreas ever reunify, north and south should at least be able to bond over the shared xenophobic tendencies of their media.
What was always interesting was how these negative media depictions of English teachers were so little related to their actual, often preferential treatment by Koreans. To be clear, this negative perception of foreign teachers never crystallized offline in the form of a demonstration, but remained limited to the internet, media, and government policies. I have long felt (and said so here) that if the Korean media absolutely must engage in such fear-mongering and xenophobia, targeting relatively privileged (and often transient) foreign teachers and US soldiers is a better option than targeting less-privileged, far more poorly-treated migrant workers. One problem with highlighting certain groups' criminality is that the lack of coverage of other groups' crimes (one such touchstone was the murder in 2008 of 13 year-old Gang Su-hyeon by a Filipino staying in the country illegally) can lead to perceptions of media bias. Far more important, however, is that allowing biased treatment in the media of one unsympathetic group to continue unchecked inevitably allows the practice to become accepted and permits its spread to other groups.
At the height of negative news reports about foreign English teachers in 2009 and 2010, there were over 300 negative articles published each year. In comparison, there have been only 10 negative articles in the first half of this year, and that includes articles about a foreign elementary school teacher fired for indecent assault. Though Yonhap published a story about that case (which often serves as a template for stories by other news outlets), I could find only five reports about it. This means that, when it comes to media treatment of foreign English teachers, things have obviously changed. While it is possible the media has stopped trafficking in such xenophobia, the more likely explanation is that attention has been turned to other targets.
Part and parcel of the height of media negativity against foreign teachers were the actions of Anti-English Spectrum, also known as 'The Citizen's Movement to Expel Illegal Foreign Language Teachers' or 'Citizens for Upright English Education,' who were spurred to action by rude comments of a sexual nature made about Korean women online by foreign teachers and photos of a sexy costume party featuring foreign teachers and Korean women. Their target was generally "unqualified" foreign teachers, about whom they elicited tips from members, fed these to the media, and then used the resulting reports as evidence of a problem in petitions to the government demanding that it be solved with new regulations. It was they who created the AIDS - foreign teacher link in the media and who, after being invited to an Immigration policy meeting, convinced the government to institute HIV tests for foreign teachers.
By the time Lee Eun-ung, the leader of Anti-English Spectrum, stopped posting at the group's Naver cafe in 2012, his work seemed to be almost complete. The visa-rules he had pushed were in place, the constitutional court had rejected a case related to HIV testing of teachers, and the HIV testing, though officially dropped for all other visas, continued for English teachers. As well, the public school cuts he had called for had begun in Gyeonggi-do, and from there spread to other cities and provinces. When the group ceased to exist after he left, it became clear he had accomplished all of this almost entirely on his own. The fact that he was able to almost single-handedly influence government policy should be disturbing, but luckily, the fact that no one took media or government actions against foreign English teachers seriously means Lee is relatively unknown; others are not likely to learn from his canny manipulation of the media (almost every major paper quoted him) and behind-the-scenes maneuvering among politicians and Ministry of Justice officials. The case of Anti-English Spectrum and the years of negative coverage of English teachers in the media provide lenses through which to view the recent anti-refugee websites and protests.
Something worth examining is the rise and fall in the number of negative media reports about foreign teachers. Though this graph only goes up to 2014 (remember that I could only find ten such articles in the first half of this year - a massive drop), a general rise and the beginning of a fall can be seen.
You'll notice that this generally corresponds to the rise and fall in the number of E-2 visa holders. The growth between 2006 and 2011 was mostly due to an abrupt increase in the number of public school teachers, which can be seen below. The two highest years, 2009 and 2010, were also the years with the most negative news articles.
A similar pattern can be seen in the recent, steep rise in the number of refugee applications:
Since the applications take time, it is likely that the most recent two years or so worth of applicants are in the country, making for a population of perhaps 15,000 (though I stress this is just a guess). There are currently 25,000 people here on the G-1 visa, which is for people given permission to stay by the Minister of Justice, but it encompasses many categories of people other than refugee applicants (such as foreigners injured in industrial accidents or caught in the sex trade). The main point to take away from this comparison is that, just as an increase in the number of foreign teachers in the late 2000s was matched by negative feeling expressed toward them in the media, the rapidly increasing influx of refugees since the enactment of the Refugee Act five years ago has also seen a rising level of concern aimed at them (though for different reasons).
Returning to Anti-English Spectrum, it was clear from their rhetoric and the statements of its leader that this group did not really want any foreign teachers in Korea, but their use of the term "unqualified" - which was always vaguely defined - allowed them to feign that they were only concerned about an unsavory subset of the targeted group, and not the group in its entirety. This is clearly to be seen in the rhetoric of the anti-refugee group on June 30.
Rally to demand the abolition of the Refugee Act and no-visa [entry]While the name of the group organizing the rally features the term "illegal," the key term to pay attention to is "fake." Like "unqualified," it will likely not be clearly defined. The suggestion here is that they are not opposed to all refugees, just the "fake" ones, as the phrases at the bottom - "Protect real refugees – Expel fake refugees" - suggest, but the call for "Abolition of the Refugee Act" strongly suggests this has only been included to soften the group's image. One source of this term, however, may be the government:
Fake refugees Get Out
Abolition of the Refugee Act – Abolition of no-visa [entry]
Denounce one-sided press reports – Demand impartial reports
Shorten international treaty refugee screening time
Put the safety and protection of fellow citizens first
Protect real refugees – Expel fake refugees
Citizens in solidarity for measures against illegal refugee applicant foreigners
The ministry and civic activists [supporting refugees] have fundamental different approaches to the refugee issue. As seen in ministry officials' media interviews and their presentations in conferences, they use the term "real refugee," implying many refugee applicants flocking to South Korea are "fake refugees."While the petition was first posted on June 14, it was on June 21 that a blog was founded with the aim of promoting the June 30 protest (I'll look at it in more detail later). That it was a blog rather than a cafe (an online forum that allows posts by multiple users) suggests this started small, and has not had much time to grow. I noticed some parallels between it and Anti-English Spectrum's Naver cafe when it started.
Days before the protest, the blogger predicted that others would try to portray them as being full of religious hate and warned that "We will not allow the press to disparage the pure intentions of the participants who took part for the safety of the people and the peace of the country." The day after the rally, the blogger stated, in a post titled "Rally to demand the abolition of Refugee Act and visa-free entry - We are not a right wing group!", that the group is not related to far right-wingers like Ju Ok-sun or groups like Ilbe, not connected to Christian groups, and have never received support from any organization. Donations towards the banners and the stage for their June 30 rally were provided by "ordinary citizens" (a list of the donations is provided here). This is reminiscent of the founder of Anti-English Spectrum (AES) writing a post to members of the site a week or so after its founding by people with "good intentions" about how he felt "regretful about the way the broadcasts have come out" which "wounded" the hearts of the group's "wholesome members" and promised to promote "proper awareness of this cafe." The report in question - a KBS news story - incensed AES members because it portrayed the group as problematic due to the way its members harassed Korean women who appeared in photos with foreign teachers. Not for nothing did the most recent anti-refugee rally hoist signs reading "Denounce biased press reports - demand impartial reports."
In October 2007, more than two-and-a-half years after AES was founded, its leader, Lee Eun-ung, was invited to take part in an Immigration policy meeting where it was decided to implement the drug and HIV tests the group had been requesting for over a year. Over the next three years almost every media outlet interviewed Lee, and bills were introduced by National Assembly representatives Lee had visited that reflected his requests. This experience makes clearer the time needed by emerging interest groups to make connections in the media and government, and this is reflected in the fact that those invited to recent debates about the refugee issue held on the premises of the National Assembly were more established groups focused on the "problem" of foreigners in general, rather than just refugees.
As Christian Today reported, on July 11 the "People's Debate for the Revision of the Refugee Act," attended by 500 people, was held in the Assembly Hall of the National Assembly Representative’s Office, hosted by National Assembly Rep. Kim Jin-tae, and overseen by the Love for Our Culture Citizen Solidarity and the Freedom and Human Rights Research Institute. A live stream can be watched here. Love for Our Culture Citizen Solidarity [우리문화사랑국민연대] is an anti-multiculturalism group whose Daum cafe features a banner photo of refugees in a boat, a section for posts titled "foreign criminals/illegal sojourners," and a slideshow of photos including the aforementioned murdered middle school student, Gang Su-hyeon, and photos of riots in Europe. The Freedom and Human Rights Research Institute [자유와인권연구소] is a Christian group which criticized Park Won-sun for allowing the Pride Festival to take place in Seoul Plaza and whose seminar on hate speech at Sejong Cultural Center last year was summarized by the Kookmin Ilbo as follows: "As it is an important public topic about about the future of the country, it's not hate, it's criticism."
At the debate Rep. Kim Jin-tae referred to the refugee crisis in Europe and criticized human rights groups and media there that distorted opposition to careless acceptance of refugees and framed it as discrimination, and promised to work for the settlement of the correct refugee policy. Reps. Shim Jae-cheol and Yu Gi-jun also sought to examine the problems of current refugee policy and to provide desirable refugee policy directions and realistic alternatives. Kim Seung-kyu, a former minister of justice, said that since refugee applicants are given work permits like recognized refugees, they abuse the laxity of the Refugee Act which "can cause a serious crisis in the public order and security of the nation." It's nice to see that former members of the government can be counted on to ease fears and reduce tensions.
Ryu Byeong-gyun of Love for Our Culture Citizen Solidarity criticized the Refugee Act as "the worst law that attracts fake refugees on a large scale who want to use the Refugee Act as an expedient to enter and stay in the country." He stated that over 30,000 people applying for refugee status have extended their stays by filing administrative suits when rejected or have stayed on illegally and suggested that the government could use the Immigration Act to expel the Yemeni refugees from Jeju.
Ryu also thought that rather than withdraw from international refugee conventions, Korea should help deal with the problems in countries where refugees originate by sending peacekeepers to these countries or letting private companies and organizations go and help refugees achieve economic and social stability and self-sufficiency. He also thought the Refugee Act should be changed to only allow refugee applications from Korean embassies abroad and that the definition of 'refugee' should be widened to allow stateless Koreans abroad to be accepted as refugees.
Lawyer Go Yeong-il, of the Freedom and Human Rights Research Institute, criticized the "poisonous clauses" of the Refugee Act and suggested numerous revisions. He advised that refugees hoping to resettle or refugees' spouses or minor children who are not in the Refugee Convention should not be allowed to enter Korea, that the clauses allowing humanitarian sojourners not in the Refugee Convention to work be deleted, and that the regulations guaranteeing living expenses, housing facilities, medical treatment and education for refugee applicants be deleted. You have to admire the creativity of Christians like these. Why read a heavy book like the Bible when you could use it as a bludgeon?
The day after this debate, another one took place in the same building, as the poster here advertises. The "Debate on improvements to problems with the refugee system" took place at 4 pm on July 12 at the National Assembly Representatives' Office Building Seminar Room 1. It was hosted by Rep. Lee Eon-ju and the National Assembly Representative research group 'Harmonius Society.' The debaters included Kim Heun-su, Seoul Nambu Administrator (connected with Immigration Office); Lee Man-seok, a representative of 4HIM (not a fan of Muslims); Ryu Byeong-gyun of Love for Our Culture Citizens Solidarity (again); and Gu Byeong-mo, Ministry of Justice Deputy Director for Refugees.
Two things are worth noting: One is the inclusion in these debates of a number of groups which are clearly not fond of foreigners living in Korea. The other is that, with appearances at two debates held on the premises of the National Assembly two days in a row, the anti-multiculturalism group Love for Our Culture Citizens Solidarity seems to have made some high-profile political connections and may be seen as a "go to" group when dealing with these issues (though I'm not familiar enough with them to say for sure). These were the kind of connections that Anti-English Spectrum made with politicians who later sponsored bills the group favored, and that got them invited to the Immigration policy meeting which decided the drug and HIV tests for E-2 visa holders.
One of the key articles Anti-English Spectrum contributed to which promoted their message of foreign teachers as AIDS threat was this Chosun Ilbo article (titled "White English instructor threatens Korean woman with AIDS" in its Korean version). Another article they contributed to was this one by KBS, titled "Out of Control Foreign English Teacher' Molests [someone] While High During Lesson," which conflates two different events to invent, in the title, an incident that never occurred. A post at this site provided a link to a Chosun Ilbo article from last week that does the same thing for Yemeni refugees. The headline and sub-headlines read:
Korea is not free from Khat, the hallucinogen that ruined YemenYemeni refugee applicant who took drug committed molestation in a clubThe article explains how a Yemeni who came to Korea in 2014 and claimed he couldn't return because he had fought against Al Queda but was judged not to be in such danger and was eventually ordered to leave Korea after a grace period. During that period he was arrested for touching women in a club, and then arrested months later for staying in Korea past the grace period and possession of khat, a plant chewed for its psychoactive properties in Yemen. His prison sentence was reduced somewhat since the court later accepted that it was legal in Yemen and that he had not taken something he knew to be illegal. The article then talks about the use of khat in Yemen and how Korea is no longer a "khat-free zone." Between the sub-headlines that suggest he was high when he touched the women and digging up a year-old case at this time, the Chosun Ilbo's stance on the refugee issue seems clear enough.
Court commuted [sentence because it's] "legal in Yemen"
90% of Yemeni men enjoy 'khat'
The petition and the June 30 protest seem to have gotten results. Politicians are falling over each other to submit bills to the national assembly or, as seen above, to host debates on the topic. And in a "let's get this out of the public eye as quickly as possible"-type solution, it has been announced that "Yemini asylum seekers who have arrived on Jeju Island this year will start receiving the results of their refugee status applications in two weeks’ time."
While the experience of a decade of media bias against foreign English teachers and the actions of Anti-English Spectrum can be compared usefully to some aspects of the anti-refugee movement, not all of it applies. The media manipulation of AES, and its use of those reports to influence the government, seem less important when citizens have a means of reaching out to the president - a president put into power through the concerted action of citizens - directly. The populism of the current administration both supports and upsets these activists, as we will see.
Update, July 18:
The fact that overworked public servants dealing with these applications are speeding up the processing of the Yemenis' applications, as mentioned two paragraphs above, should be worrying considering that the Chosun Ilbo has just reported that an Arabic interpreter hired by the Justice Ministry, who had "no professional qualifications but was a[n undergraduate] student of business administration with Arabic as a minor subject," and who was likely hired to save money, "habitually misrepresent[ed]" "stories of asylum seekers, often making them appear in an unfavorable light that may have damaged their chances of staying."
In one instance, a review showed that an asylum seeker told the court in Arabic that he suffered political repression in his home country, but Chang [the interpreter] rendered it as, "I came here to make money." [...] It is unclear whether he was simply incompetent or motivated by malice. [...]
Chang translated in more than 100 asylum application cases over the past two years. As a result of an internal investigation, the ministry voided 55 of its own decisions against asylum seekers where he was involved, and has already reversed two and granted the applicants asylum.It goes on to note that "only a handful" of contract or regular translators in government offices have proper qualifications, and that Jeju lacks properly qualified Korean-Arabic translators.
It would seem I was wrong to conclude that the Chosun Ilbo article I mentioned above indicated a stance on the Yemeni refugees. Mind you, the possibility that an article portraying Yemenis as drug-addled molesters was not written for any political purpose but was just a par-for-the-course article isn't exactly reassuring.
Oh, and this seems like a rather badly-timed article.