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The Peninsula

Public Sentiment Deters Global Commitments

Published September 7, 2021
Author: Korea View

What Happened

  • Named “Operation Miracle,” 391 Afghans who helped the Korean government’s activities in Afghanistan were brought to Korea as “persons with special merit” – but not as refugees.
  • President Moon Jae-in said the successful evacuation was “highly recognized by the international community” and hopes that it will serve as an opportunity to better establish South Korea as a country “with dignity.”
  • According to recent polling, about 70 percent of South Koreans support granting “special merit” status to the evacuated Afghans.

Implications: Korean policymakers are unwilling to advocate for shared global values if their practice might upset domestic constituents. Seoul’s response to the fall of Kabul is indicative of this posture as both the ruling and opposition parties have urged a cautious approach on the matter of refugee resettlement as large segments of the public harbor negative attitudes towards people of the Muslim faith. Many women’s rights advocates have become particularly vocal opponents of the resettlement of refugees from Muslim countries because of the perceived cultural incompatibility between Islam and Korean values. Meanwhile, surveys suggest that ongoing economic difficulties facing Korean youths are leading to low public confidence in the country’s ability to support refugees. This may explain why evacuees from Afghanistan were not extended refugee status as this would have accorded them the same social security benefits and rights enjoyed by Korean citizens such as access to primary education. Accordingly, the country’s refugee recognition rate remains low overall despite the country’s purported steps to match its refugee policy to international standards.

Context: In early 2018, around 500 Yemenis escaping war arrived in Jeju Island. In response, more than 700,000 people signed a petition demanding that the government not accept them as refugees. Ironically, the Moon administration’s progressive support base, including women, the youth, and middle-income households expressed the strongest objections to extending refugee status to the Yemenis. In the end, only two Yemenis were granted refugee status, 56 were denied visas, while some 412 were granted temporary “humanitarian stay” permits. The government’s lukewarm response still lowered President Moon’s approval ratings to the lowest point since he had taken office.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Sean Blanco, Marina Dickson, Yubin Huh, and Janet Hong. Picture from the flickr account of T

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