A recent administrative order in the South Korean capital of Seoul requiring non-citizen workers to take a COVID-19 test or face a fine drew swift domestic and international condemnation. Authorities quickly modified the order due to a combination of widespread condemnation in global media as well as complaints from Western governments in response to concerns raised about discrimination and xenophobia.
Members of the South Korean National Assembly from various parties also roundly condemned the administrative order in Seoul as discriminatory and potentially damaging to the country’s international reputation. Furthermore, South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission warned that such policies could lead to hate crimes. Subsequently, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun called for sensitivity with regards to South Korea’s approach to its immigrant community in relation to anti-COVID measures.
Similar orders for provinces such as Gyeonggi and South Jeolla, however remained in place, compounding the situation of migrants from South and Southeast Asian countries residing in South Korea on the oft-exploitative Employment Permit System (EPS) who often work in life-threatening conditions.
The maintenance of such policies, roundly criticized for the lack of scientific or medical evidence demonstrating their effectiveness, could undermine certain aspects of South Korea’s New Southern Policy, particularly the aspects focused on cultural exchanges and public diplomacy.
Many of the less than commendable aspects of South Korea’s otherwise praiseworthy response to the pandemic disproportionately affect immigrants and residents from countries with which Seoul aspires to collaborate under the New Southern Policy (NSP). Although the NSP is primarily strategic in nature, South Korea has also espoused a significant human aspect to the policy that discriminatory policies risk undermining.
The New Southern Policy has developed in tandem with South Korea President Moon Jae-in’s own evolving thinking on the importance of the Southeast Asia subregion for Seoul. Although often billed as a South Korean policy aimed at complementing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy without actually endorsing it, Seoul’s New Southern Policy goes well beyond geopolitics and strategy. The NSP is also in part based on the so-called “three P’s”: people, prosperity, and peace. The “people” aspect of this includes increasing people-to-people exchanges and understanding between South Koreans and citizens of countries covered by the New Southern Policy as well as promoting the quality of life for citizens of NSP partner states residing in South Korea.
While enhancing mutual understanding between citizens of South Korea and the various states of South and Southeast Asia is one of the cornerstones of the New Southern Policy, a lack of understanding among the South Korean public regarding the countries covered under the New Southern Policy poses challenges for the development of the NSP. Immigrants from ASEAN member states together comprise well over half a million of the 2.5 million immigrants in South Korea. As such, their treatment within South Korea, particularly at the official level, is certain to have an impact on the success of any South Korean attempt to emphasize the people-to-people aspect of its New Southern Policy.
Against the backdrop of Seoul’s grand strategic vision for pursuing relations with countries in South and Southeast Asia, residents from the region living in South Korea have complained of a notable increase in xenophobia related to the current public health crisis.
Concurrently, the status and treatment of immigrants in South Korea has to an extent become a political issue in an otherwise homogeneous country. Lee Jae-myung, a leading contender for the South Korean 2022 presidential election and current governor of Gyeonggi province (the South Korean jurisdiction with the largest non-Korean workforce by far) has spoken out on behalf of the immigrant population in defense of their human rights. There is a possibility that any negative international perceptions of South Korea – an export-oriented economy that relies heavily on soft power – will become at least a footnote political issue during the 2022 race.
More practically, however, large-scale testing efforts will impact South Korea’s image among partners in the New Southern Policy. Policies perceived to be discriminatory toward individuals and groups from partner states could erode favorable views of South Korea, undermining Seoul’s efforts to promote the human aspect of its New Southern Policy. Although local governments in South Korea have implemented testing orders to a degree independently of central policy, the disconnect between Seoul’s strategic vision and on-the-ground policies in local jurisdictions could exert a negative effect on this particular aspect of South Korea’s strategic interests toward South and Southeast Asia.