When nearly 400 Afghans landed at South Korea’s Incheon Airport on August 26, many Koreans took pride in the fact that South Korea, a country that once needed outside help to evacuate its own population, has developed into a nation that can now rescue people from thousands of miles away. Through an evacuation operation dubbed Operation Miracle, 390 Afghans who had worked at the South Korean Embassy and other Korean agencies, along with their family members, arrived in South Korea under the status of “special contributors.” While some Afghans expressed their satisfaction with being called “special contributors” instead of “refugees,” the new title was also seen as a product of South Korea’s rigid, if not nonexistent, refugee policy.
In general, South Korea’s track record of granting asylum or humanitarian protection has been unenthusiastic, at best. From 2000-2017, the country only gave refugee status to 3.5 percent of applicants; in 2020, that number was even lower, with only 1.1 percent of applicants, a total of 79 people, granted refugee status. South Korea’s first serious encounter with a global refugee crisis was when about 500 Yemenis came to the island of Jeju in 2018, invoking the first public debate on refugee issues in the largely ethnically homogeneous society. Public sentiment toward the Yemenis remained predominantly negative. For their part, politicians and policymakers, as is generally the case with what are often described as “issues that need further public consensus,” glossed over the debate and left it where it was.
The Korean public, however, showed overwhelming support for the settlement of the Afghan “special contributors.” In a survey conducted by Realmeter on August 27, immediately following the evacuation operation, 68.7 percent of respondents agreed with the plan to give Afghan contributors with previous and current ties to the Korean government visas for a prolonged stay and employment, with 39.8 percent somewhat agreeing and 29.8 percent strongly agreeing to the plan. According to the survey, the proposal received overwhelming support from progressives, with 80.6 percent agreeing, whereas conservatives were evenly split, with 52.2 percent supporting the plan and 45.3 percent disagreeing.
Unlike the Yemenis, the Afghan contributors met certain conditions that drew greater public support. The conflict in Afghanistan is relatively well known compared to the Yemeni civil war, which prevented a debate over whether the arrivals were “fake refugees”; the Afghans are families consisting of women and children, while the Yemeni refugees were predominantly men; and the sense of obligation was much higher since more than 3,900 South Korean troops served in Afghanistan. And most importantly, as their status suggests, the Afghans’ previous affiliation with the South Korean government not only alleviated typical concerns over refugees, but also proved their “worth” to Koreans, who demand certain prerequisites to be met by foreigners.
Once the 390 Afghans arrived in South Korea, most politicians echoed earlier statements about the need to welcome them. President Moon Jae-in said that “the success of the transfer operation and the open and inclusive stance of our people are being highly recognized by the international community,” while the conservative People Power Party (PPP)’s presidential primary candidate Yoo Seung-min urged the government to take even more action to bring over about 60 additional Afghans whom the ROK government had hired as subcontractors. The only prominent politician to criticize the plan was Cho Kyung-tae, a fifth-term Democratic-turned-PPP member of the National Assembly, who openly questioned, “How can you assure that no one among the 400 Afghans has ties to the Taliban?”
However, this overwhelming public support to bring in and accept Afghan “special contributors” cannot be interpreted as a dramatic change in South Korean public perceptions toward refugees. Contrary to the aforementioned Realmeter poll, which used the phrase “Korean government contributors from Afghanistan” instead of “refugees,” other polls suggest Koreans have far more negative views once the word “refugees’” is involved. In a recent survey by RnSearch asking how Seoul should react if the U.S. or the international community requested South Korea to accept Afghan refugees, 31.4 percent responded they were against welcoming refugees. Just 27.3 percent stated South Korea should accept refugees, and 30 percent answered that South Korea should selectively accept Afghans who are connected to the Korean government or work in certain professions.
The survey also suggests that attitudes toward refugees are not necessarily divided along political lines. At 37.8 percent, respondents identifying as conservative PPP voters were slightly more likely to state that South Korea should not accept refugees regardless of their ties to South Korea. Still, about a quarter of supporters (27 percent) of the ruling Democratic Party, and even supporters (25 percent) of the minor progressive Justice Party – the only parliamentary party openly advocating for granting asylum to more refugees – had a similar response.
Further, a survey by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from November 2020, which did not account for the possibility of selectively accepting refugees with prior affiliation with the South Korean government, also concluded there was no correlation between accepting refugees and right-wing authoritarianism as a group identifier. About half of a right-wing authoritarian group, moderate group, and liberal group all responded they were against receiving refugees, at 52 percent, 55 percent, and 49 percent, respectively.
Against that backdrop, the South Korean government had to change the language it used to refer to the 390 Afghans multiple times before settling on “special contributors.” They were once referred to as “persons of special merit,” which gained the attention of Western media, but that was quickly changed to “special contributors,” as it was revealed that only nine foreigners had been granted the designation of “persons of special merit” since 1948. The government also emphasized that these Afghans are not refugees but are instead people who contributed to the national interests of South Korea. As a result, they will receive better care than refugees in terms of education, stipends, and support. However, the South Korean government has also stated there is no plan under consideration for granting them permanent residence.
Perhaps the most noticeable feature of Korean attitudes toward refugees is a comparatively much stronger rejection of refugees by younger age groups, those in their 20s and 30s. In the RnSearch survey, 41.4 percent of respondents in their 20s and 40.8 percent in their 30s responded that South Korea should not accept refugees regardless of their affiliation with the government, compared to just 29.6 percent, 26.3 percent, and 24.9 percent in their 40s, 50s, and 60s and older, respectively.
Even in the Realmeter survey, where 68.7 percent of respondents overall supported the plan to allow the Afghan contributors to stay in South Korea, younger groups made up the biggest opposition: 25.2 percent of people in their 20s and 24.2 percent in their 30s stated they were firmly against the plan, and 14.6 percent and 15.5 percent in their 20s and 30s, respectively answered they were somewhat against the plan.
With many frustrated voters in their 20s and 30s possibly viewing debates on refugee acceptance as “a luxury” or preferential treatment at the expense of younger generations, candidates are likely to collectively dodge what they see as a sensitive issue that could cost them votes. Taking this into consideration, major presidential candidates from both parties have already issued ambiguous statements emphasizing general humanitarian principles, while remaining uncommitted.
Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung, now the clear frontrunner in the Democratic Party primary, wrote on Facebook that “our government will continue to be forced to make choices. I hope our community spirit will be on display, as we adhere to principles of respecting human rights, promoting world peace and prohibiting discrimination based on gender, religion, and ideology.”
Former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol, the PPP frontrunner who criticized the Moon administration for not taking a firmer stance on human rights issues in North Korea and Myanmar, also dodged a direct response by stating that “the issue needs to be processed based on international laws or international principles on human rights and humanitarian assistance.”
Interestingly enough, Hong Joon-pyo, the conservative presidential candidate in the previous presidential election and a current runner-up candidate within the PPP, expressed his view that South Korea should accept refugees. On his YouTube channel on September 20, Hong remarked that “considering our own difficult time in the past, it is proper to accept refugees. Korea is no longer an ethnically homogeneous nation and has become a nation with people from all over the world. Therefore, I believe there is no need for us to ostracize issues related to refugees.”
Hong’s response seemed to reflect the view of Koreans in their 60s and older, who have expressed comparatively sympathetic views toward refugees. Their views perhaps derive from their memory of the United States and the international community aiding Koreans during and after the Korean War, which would not resonate much with younger people in their 20s and 30s.
In fact, Lee Jun-seok, the 36-year-old leader of the PPP who vowed to represent overlooked younger voices, in July asserted that while immigrants with skills and investments are welcomed, “refugee issues are different. For instance, when refugees from African countries, whose lifestyle, religion, and culture are different than ours, come to Korea, what is their purpose?”
As reflected in the words of South Korean presidential candidates, it would not be surprising if the nominees continue to stick with ambiguous scripts, or if the issue of refugees gets brushed aside altogether.
Along with politicians, many Koreans may also hope that this will be the last time South Korea is faced with debates on refugee issues. But with South Korea wishing to be seen as a responsible member of the international community and an increased number of international conflicts, it is unlikely to be the last time the country must state its position on the issue. It has been almost 30 years since Korea proclaimed Segyehwa – internationalization or globalization – as its official policy, but public education and discourse over new international challenges, such as international migration, have been severely lacking. The arrival of Afghans could be the best opportunity for South Korea to hold earnest debates, whether one supports or opposes the country’s current stance on refugees, so it can be better prepared for similar events, possibly involving its brethren in the North.