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The Peninsula

Discord on South Korea’s “Island of World Peace”

Published August 8, 2018
Category: South Korea

By Linnea Logie

The constant movement of people around the world, particularly low- and unskilled laborers seeking higher wages and improved living standards, has met with resistance in communities fearful of compromising their cultural integrity or degrading their economic and national security environment.  Migrants from insecure parts of the world have proven especially controversial in recent years and continue to ignite local and nationwide debates in their host countries over issues of moral responsibility, identity politics, economic opportunity, and national security.  Such anxieties are now gripping Jeju Island, a popular tourist destination in South Korea that aspires to advance the cause of world peace.  A recent influx of Yemeni refugees on the island has given rise to a confluence of economic, social, and cultural concerns among South Koreans, prompting a firm government response and casting the fate of many such refugees into doubt.

Societal Mistrust

South Korea only began accepting refugees in 1994 and has since granted asylum to fewer than 900 people (barely over 2 percent of applicants).  Of the nearly 10,000 who applied for asylum in 2017, the ROK government offered protections to just 121 (1.2 percent).

Meanwhile, government efforts since at least 2008 to formalize support for, and curb discrimination against, immigrants seeking to become “responsible and self-reliant” members of society seem to have fallen short.  Analysts and observers have voiced concern that policies and programs intended to promote multiculturalism (damunhwa) over previous notions of Korea as a single-blooded nation (danil minjok) tend to emphasize assimilation rather than integration, sustaining latent xenophobia among those bent on preserving what they see as uniquely Korean “ethno-racial purity.”


Officials from Jeju Island and the South Korean mainland are now scrambling to pacify a restive public after the introduction of direct flights between Jeju and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in December 2017 inadvertently created a new destination for individuals fleeing desperate wartime conditions in Yemen.  Jeju relies heavily on tourism for local economic growth and has for years sought to attract visitors by offering a 30-day visa waiver program to 180 countries, including Yemen.  Provincial government officials hoped the new travel route would help offset declining Chinese tourism.  Instead, the direct connection with Malaysia, which also offers foreigners a generous visa-free visitation period, began to deliver dozens of refugees to South Korea’s doorstep by early 2018.

Over 950 foreigners have reached the shores of Jeju in search of legal refugee status since the beginning of the year, nearly three times as many as in 2017.  Though many of these recent arrivals are of Chinese descent, more than 560 traveled from Yemen, marking a dramatic increase from the mere 46 Yemeni nationals who sought asylum in South Korea for the duration of 2017.

Outrage over this sudden insurgence of Yemeni arrivals erupted almost immediately, triggering public calls for the Jeju government to expel the asylum-seekers.  Localized discontent spread rapidly, spawning a petition posted anonymously to the official Blue House website on June 13 that garnered nearly 715,000 signatures within a month.  Decrying abuse of the Jeju visa waiver program and emphasizing the need to prioritize public order and safety over refugee considerations, the document demanded immediate expulsion of the Yemeni refugees and strengthened controls on undocumented immigration.

The petition went so far as to propose annulment or major amendment of the Refugee Act, whose passage in 2013 made South Korea the first Asian nation to ratify legislation enabling refugees to not only apply for asylum upon arrival at air or shipping ports, but also remain in-country—collecting various social welfare benefits—throughout the often protracted review period.  Before its introduction, South Korean law stipulated that refugees could only apply for asylum at local immigration offices, effectively denying entry to all those lacking proper visas.  According to the recent petition, changes to this system have exacerbated existing immigration problems, creating new opportunities for foreigners to take unfair advantage of the visa waiver and thereby endangering Korea’s economic security and public safety.

Meanwhile, passions spilled onto the streets.  Thousands gathered in central Seoul on June 30 to insist that the government “put Korean citizens before refugees,” hoisting signs imploring “fake refugees” to “go home now.”  Protestors made little effort to conceal their deep misgivings about refugee intentions and disruptive potential, chanting “Koreans first!” and “We want safety!”  One signatory to the Blue House petition captured these fears succinctly: “If we continue to allow [Yemeni asylum-seekers into Korea], what is happening in Europe today could become our future.”

Divided Opinion 

The refugees are not without allies, however.  Many South Koreans have denounced what they see as narrow-minded, zero-sum characterizations of the Yemeni arrivals as potentially harmful to society.  Some staged a counter-protest across the street from the anti-refugee demonstrations on June 30.  Religious and non-profit groups, including the Korean Red Cross, have stepped in with offers of free medical services, material support, and emotional assistance.  Even the Vatican has stepped into the fray, dispatching its top envoy to Jeju on July 28 with a donation made on behalf of Pope Francis.

Also sympathetic are five lawyers associated with the Seoul-based Advocates for Public Interest Law, founded in 2011 to provide legal counsel to migrant workers, refugees, and asylum-seekers.  The group acknowledges that accepting refugees presents uncertainties for the South Korean polity but cautions against fearmongering based on misinformation, misperception, and “sensationalized reports on the European refugee crisis.”

High-profile domestic voices such as actor Jung Woo-sung have even joined the conversation.  Jung, South Korea’s goodwill ambassador to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since 2014, posted a UNHCR statement opposing refugee repatriation to his Instagram account and, in remarks delivered at the June 24 Jeju Forum, rejected the premise that respecting refugee rights necessarily impinges upon the rights enjoyed by Korean citizens.  Jung’s emphatic support for the Yemeni refugees has elicited a mixed reaction among concerned Koreans, reflecting divided opinion in the general public.  Nearly half of nationwide respondents to a June 20 survey opposed the acceptance of Yemeni asylum seekers (25.7 percent negative and 23.4 percent very negative), while 39 percent expressed support (31.0 percent positive and 8.0 percent very positive), and 11.9 percent were undecided. 

A Firm Response 

Facing such public ambivalence, the Moon administration is attempting to strike a balance between its responsibility to protect Korean citizens and its desire for the country to “act as a responsible member of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.”  Nevertheless, it is the scale and intensity of domestic backlash—more than the impassioned activism of human rights defenders at home and abroad—that has galvanized government activity.  The official response has been firm, marked by assurances that the government will review and redress vulnerabilities in Korea’s refugee laws.

The Justice Ministry moved swiftly to stem the tide of Yemeni refugees soon after Jeju officials began to hear rumblings of public discontent.  On April 30, following the departure of several Yemenis for the mainland (but months prior to the outbreak of protests in the South Korean capital), the ministry barred the refugees from traveling beyond Jeju.  Fast-forward to the first of June, and Yemen had been stripped of its visa-free travel access to the island, becoming one of just twelve nations excluded from the waiver program.

Ten days later, the Jeju Immigration Office provided mild relief by exempting the Yemenis from measures preventing refugees from seeking employment within the first six months of applying for asylum.  Yet, while this reprieve raised the hopes of stranded refugees, many of whom had originally planned on traveling to Seoul, job opportunities have thus far been limited to understaffed fisheries and restaurants.  As a result, scores of Yemenis are unemployed, with rapidly dwindling funds.  Many live crowded together in ramshackle hotels or camped out on the street, unable to afford nightly rates at higher-quality lodging.

These regrettable working and living conditions, coupled with continued public pressure, have accelerated government efforts to “resolve” the refugee issue.  On June 19, President Moon called for an official assessment of the situation on Jeju, and the following day, Blue House Press Secretary Kim Eui-kyeom delivered the stern message that “no more Yemeni refugees” would be allowed into the country.

At the same time, Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong claimed on June 24 that his government would not “be stingy with humanitarian assistance” to those who had traveled great distance after “escap[ing] from their country at war,” though he also vowed to ensure the local security environment through a “swift yet accurate” asylum deliberation process.

The Jeju Immigration Office began processing some 486 Yemeni asylum applications on June 25, with expectations that the process could take as many as eight months.  Shortly thereafter, the Justice Ministry held a working-level meeting with fifteen other government institutions to evaluate public and private grievances.  Eager to avoid a protracted review period, the ministry assigned eight additional personnel (six inspectors and two translators) to the Jeju team.  Refugees are now expected to begin receiving decisions shortly.

However quickly the cases are resolved, the national debate over Korea’s refugee policies has only just begun.  Anti-refugee sentiment remains a significant feature of South Korean society and may, in the near term, prompt the government to adopt increasingly stringent measures toward asylum-seekers.

Signs of this trend are already emerging.  On June 27, the Justice Ministry proposed amendment of the Refugee Act to prevent abuse by migrants entering or staying in South Korea illegally, claiming new enforcement mechanisms were required to ensure that work permits are not granted to those merely posing as refugees.  The government may also reexamine the countries granted visa-free access to South Korea; the Justice Ministry already expects to add Egypt to the list of twelve countries excluded from the Jeju Island visa-waiver program.  Other countries may face similar scrutiny.


Many South Koreans harbor misgivings about throwing open the country’s doors to immigrants and refugees, alike.  Those calling for the immediate expulsion of Yemeni refugees from Jeju fear that failure to do so could precipitate a security crisis throughout South Korea, giving rise to the types of terrorist attacks seen over the past several years across Europe.  Yet while any country needs systematic procedures for the screening of those seeking entry or residence, the trepidation and exclusionary worldview among some Koreans could prompt a government overreaction, leading to immigration restrictions that only further exacerbate aging and contraction of Korea’s ethnic population.  Ideally, Korea will pause to reflect after passions subside on Jeju.  Koreans must consider how their attitudes and policies toward refugees may affect not just their character as a people, but their long-term economic and geopolitical future.

Linnea Logie is an incoming graduate student with the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.  She is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.  

Photo from Sunghwan Yoon’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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