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Refugee Crisis on Jeju Island Reveals the Pride and Prejudice of South Korea’s Ecstatic Populism

Refugee Crisis on Jeju Island Reveals the Pride and Prejudice of South Korea’s Ecstatic Populism

Anti-immigration activists protested in Seoul on June 30th against a group of asylum-seekers from Yemen. (Photo Credit: Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

A sense of xenophobia is spreading across South Korea: a massive number of the G20 country’s inhabitants have begun to increasingly manifest their Choson-dynasty, tribal-mindset hostility against the 561 Yemeni refugees waiting to get their refugee status approved on the visa-free Jeju Island. Since an online petition supporting deportation of the refugees was filed on the Blue House webpage on June 13th, the number of signatures exceeded 200,000 in just two days and reached approximately 700,000 in a month. The deep, xenophobic sentiment behind this number was further unmasked when a flock of right-wing extremists, representing the hundreds of thousands of Koreans with anti-refugee beliefs, began to cathartically scapegoat the few vulnerable refugees who have fled from the genocide in Yemen, itself reminiscent of the Korean war. “Fake refugees; go home!”, “Citizens come first, we want safety”, the hate-mongers chanted aloud during street rallies held on June 30th and July 13th, urging the government to repeal the existing Refugee Act and the visa-free access regulation. In response to sentiments that are now increasingly transmuting into Islamophobia, the liberal Moon Administration announced their decision to tighten the existing Refugee Act. Such a move, however, stands in hypocritical contrast to the ethos of the Administration’s ‘People come First’ ideals, which the Blue House has tried so hard to engrave in its constitution revision proposal by replacing the word “citizens” with “people” in the preamble. If this hypocrisy causes President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer, to fail to fulfill South Korea’s international commitment to protect refugees, the administration will not only sustain criticism from the international society but also taint its liberal reputation.

The Pride and Prejudice of the South Korean People’s Ecstatic Populism

Considering the fact that South Korea has never before dealt with a large influx of refugees, it is still not easy to ascertain whether this recent xenophobic movement is a mere storm in a teacup or whether it will convoke the long-departed ghost of nation-dooming, Choson-era protectionism. However, a recent poll conducted by Realmeter implies a gloomy future regarding the growing xenophobia in the country. More than half (53.4%) of the respondents expressed hostility towards the refugees, while only 37.4% demonstrated a willingness to accept them. Across the country, this tendency towards a ‘tyranny of the majority’ is evident, particularly in the Seoul Metropolitan area and the Kyungki and Kyungsang provinces. South Korean women appear to be more narrow-minded and illiberal than their male counterparts, as 60% of female respondents were opposed to the refugees compared to the 27% who were supportive; by contrast, 48% of men were opposed to the refugees while 46.6% of men were supportive. Surprisingly, the poll suggests that women in their 20s show the most opposition to refugees. This particular observation is noteworthy, since some loathsome activities conducted by an extremist, misandrist feminist group have been increasingly reported by Korean news outlets in recent weeks.

The transmutation of the tyranny of the majority into bizarre occultism in South Korea calls the nature of the country’s peculiarly maternalistic leadership into question. Nowadays, the leadership takes so much pride in the moral absoluteness of the popular will that wiped away the legacies of the Park family’s tribal authoritarian values that it has ironically come to resemble the maternalistic leadership style of impeached president Park-Geun-Hye herself, which was characterized by its insular and unilateral communication tactics. As South Korea’s maternalistic leadership continues to build a thick wall against the refugees and other vulnerable minorities so as to protect their tribal oikos (a Greek word for ‘household’ that Arendt used to describe the public sphere), it seems almost impossible to find a liberal way to emancipate the refugees that accords with the liberal ideals that once emancipated the South Korean people from authoritarian rule.

The rise of ecstatic populism in South Korea has gradually come to foster not only xenophobia, but also a fanatical antipathy against internationalism in one of the biggest exporter countries in the world. I have personally experienced (reflexivity) such antipathy at a local Korean ethnic church in Ottawa, Canada, from an anti-Park-administration pastor (Park, Man Young) fueled by rabid anti-internationalism. I had my first lunch with the pastor about a month after I began attending the church. At first, we chatted amiably about my experience living in New York, as well as my previous internship experience with the UN. Unexpectedly, during that week’s Sunday sermon, the pastor abruptly brandished a picture of what he described as a ‘heretic cult group’s activity,’ complete with an irrelevant United Nations logo attached, and told the audience: “I’ve recently heard the news that a member of this heretic group has recently arrived from New York to break the church apart.” After the sermon, I privately urged the pastor to publicly apologize for this obvious slander, since he was clearly lying about the association between the UN and this heretic group, and suggested that South Korea should thank UN for its help during the Korean War. The pastor, however, refused, saying the sermon had been planned with the church committee, and went on to assure me that while the heretic cult group presents itself as a just organization, its intrinsic intentions were undeniably evil. Near-schizophrenic antipathy and anti-internationalist extremism of this kind offers a regrettably representative example that testifies to the ugly ‘truth’ of how some South Korean civil leaders use ecstatic populism to mislead their local people into a distorted understanding of internationalism. This type of antipathy and extremism, disguised in the form of the so-called ‘community/national culture’, is a social pathogen that will ultimately infect all of South Korean society with an irrationally rigid culture of corruption and a one-dimensional, hierarchical establishment.

Internationalism is Critical to South Korea’s Interests; No Global Citizenship, No Global Consumers

For both geopolitical and populist reasons, the recent rise of xenophobia in South Korea is reminiscent of the 19th century Korean traditionalists’ fanatical support for the Choson dynasty’s degenerative, Confucian closed-border doctrine. South Korea’s recent thaws with North Korea have reshuffled the ranking of the country’s national priorities: strategies for ‘prosperity through peace’ and international trade now dominate over those for North Korea’s denuclearization. Still, the pursuit of these dovish strategies seems to be a risky gamble. On the one hand, it is risky because South Korea is decreasing its defense capabilities and activities to accommodate peace with North Korea at the same time as all neighboring powers are preparing to recalibrate their military capability (fuelled, undoubtedly, by their own version of nationalism) to contend with North Korea’s asymmetric nuclear capability following the suspension of the U.S.-ROK military exercise. On the other hand, it is also risky because this xenophobic movement, boosted as it is by ecstatic populism, in turn induces the people to wrongly perceive internationalism as a conglomerate-focused concept that is unaffordable, luxurious, and stands against the interests of the people. Despite these distortions, the undeniable reality is that internationalism is indeed the economic engine that has facilitated South Korea’s becoming one of the world’s most prosperous liberal middle powers. The real problem is that neither Seoul nor the South Korean people have successfully figured out an alternative breadwinning system, even though the country’s economy is still highly dependent on a few state-sponsored conglomerate entities known as jaebols.

The complete disarray of the Conservative camp in South Korea under the circumstances dangerously minimizes the people’s, or the so-called ‘democratic principals(according to the principal-agent framework)’’, responsibilities to maintain the country’s economic competence. Granted, it is common sense to blame the breadwinning agents for their incompetency and moral hazards (or lack of noblesse oblige) in accordance with the principles of public values, as well as economic natural selection; regardless, such rhetoric (which is often abused under the justification of economic democratization) does not excuse the people, or the ‘democratic principals’, from concealing their own incompetence and moral hazards in the name of national/local pride. In this sense, the South Korean ‘democratic principals’ should proactively ask what they themselves can do to foster the preconditions for creating a strong economy rather than passively relying on the state to do so. Promoting the value of the globally shared responsibility for the Kantian hospitality to foreigners is one of these preconditions, especially for a resource-poor economy like South Korea, since it is vitally important that the country attract global consumers to buy the intermediary and final goods produced in the country. In other words, the value promotion of Kantian global citizenship is more of an essential survival strategy that will enhance South Korea’s economic competency in the long run. Time after time, the positive externalities of internationalism in Northeast Asia, such as the preclusion of the Asian Paradox and nationalism-led economic protectionism, will outweigh those of negative externalities such as terror attacks (which have not yet occurred on the South Korean soil); however, this will only come to pass if the citizens hold their faith in the law-based (i.e. responsibilities-based) order and the value of global citizenship.



Mark (Won Min) Seo

Mark (Won Min) Seo is a freelance writer who served as an editor for NYU’s Journal of Political Inquiry. He was also a former intern with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. He has an MA in Politics from New York University.