Yemeni Refugees in South Korea Causing Controversy
On June 30, 2018, South Koreans held two different rallies in Seoul, one protesting asylum seekers from Yemen who are in Jeju Island and another supporting the asylum seekers. The protesters called for South Korea’s government to make policies to ensure the asylum seekers are not economic migrants. The supporters called for allowing the asylum seekers to live in South Korea and for more tolerance.
Recently, Jeju Island experienced an influx of Yemeni asylum seekers fleeing from civil war in Yemen. Back in December 2017, budget airline Air Asia started direct flights between Jeju and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. While this was seen as a tourism boon for Jeju, concerns arose as it coincided with a surge of Yemeni refugees who looked for alternative visa-free destinations after not being able to extend their stay in Southeast Asia. A foreigner can stay for up to a month without a visa but a refugee application can allow them to extend their stay. As of June 26, 2018, there are 950 Yemenis in Jeju.
On June 25, 2018, Jeju’s immigration authorities started reviewing refugee applications of the Yemenis and the entire process is anticipated to take 6-8 months. A total of 549 Yemenis applied for refugee status and others may have relocated to different regions in South Korea before restrictions were placed on travel to the mainland. Each decision is usually made one month after review and the Yemenis can either be recognized or denied as refugees, and otherwise be given “humanitarian sojourn” status.
The Yemenis denied or granted humanitarian sojourn status can appeal their decisions. If recognized as refugees or humanitarian sojourns, restrictions on mainland travel may be lifted. During that time, some Yemeni refugees wereable to work at fisheries and restaurants that were facing labor shortages. Others have become homeless. Yemeni teenagers are unable to go to school or work due to their pending refugee statuses.
The influx of Yemeni asylum seekers has brought concerns among residents in both Jeju and mainland South Korea. Over 430,000 South Koreans signed a petition calling on the South Korean government to deport the asylum seekers and revise Jeju’s visa waiver program. Some online commentators were blatantly Islamophobic that included negative stereotypes of Muslims.
Other South Koreans think that they won’t be able to integrate into South Korean society and that the Yemenis are economic migrants seeking to take advantage of South Korean social welfare services. In a public opinion poll, 49% of South Koreans believe they should be deported while 39% said they should be allowed to stay. Experts said most South Koreans have little experience interacting with Middle Easterns and little education on religious and cultural diversity.
The Jeju government has already removed Yemen from the visa waiver list as of June 1. While Jeju’s governor, Won Hee-ryon said humanitarian assistance will be given, security in Jeju will also be increased to assuage resident concerns. The governor also promised to meet directly with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to find a better solution that would involve moving some asylum seekers from Jeju into mainland South Korea.
On June 29, 2018, South Korea’s Justice Ministry announced plans to revise the Refugee Act that would prevent fraudulent asylum seekers and increase staffing to handle refugee applications. Historically, South Korea beganaccepting refugees in 1994. Since 1994, a total of 40,407 people applied for asylum and only 839 were accepted, making the overall acceptance rate 4.1%.
Other South Koreans spoke out in support of the Yemenis. South Korean actor Jung Woo-sung who is also UNHCR goodwill ambassador called for public sympathy as they face danger upon deportation and criticized those calling for deportations comparing it to South Koreans concerns about repatriation of North Korean defectors. South Korea’s National Council of Churches alsocondemned Islamophobic comments and called for the South Korean government to prevent misinformation about the Yemenis and strengthen humanitarian assistance.
Continuing Inter-Korean Cooperation Following the Panmunjeom Declaration
Following the Apr 27th Panmunjeom Declaration, there have been questions about the if and how inter-Korean cooperation would pan out. Since then, both North Korea and South Korea have continued their efforts to work together on a variety of topics. These include: inter-Korean military ties, family reunions, joint sports events, and finally environmental and economic cooperation.
Militarily, colonels from the North and South agreed to restore direct communication lines in order to avoid potential misunderstandings. Eastern and Western phone lines were shut down in 2011 and 2016 inter-Korean relations deteriorated during that period.
Even more prominent are developments related to reunions of families separated by the Korean War. The South Korean Red Cross will select 500 candidates by July 3rd. Among those candidates, 100 people from the South will travel to meet relatives at Mt. Geumgang in North Korea from Aug 20-26th. However, it is unclear how receptive North Korea will be to additional proposals the South may have on this topic. Among these additional requests is aproposal to survey the surviving families in the North separated by the war. Another may include a request to allow cross-border hometown visits and exchanges of letters.
A third important area of cooperation is in sports. Like the Pyeongchang Olympics, the two Koreas will march under a joint flag during the opening and closing ceremonies of the upcoming Asian Games. They will also field joint teams and compete together in several sports. Separate from the Asian Games, four inter-Korean exhibition basketball games will be held in North Korea from July 3-6th.
More low-key and less controversial among efforts being promoted is environmental cooperation, which is not subject to international sanctions. Next week, an inter-Korean environmental ministers meeting will be held to address deforestation, which is an ongoing problem for North Korea.
Perhaps the most controversial topic being broached by President Moon is potential economic cooperation with the North. While in Russia for the World Cup, President Moon mentioned railways, gas and electrical grids on June 21st as potential areas of North-South-Russian trilateral economic cooperation. One related project under consideration is a Seoul-Sinuiju rail line. These projects have raised questions about possible breaches of international sanctions on North Korea. South Korea Transportation Minister Kim Jeong-ryeol assertedthat such a project would not constitute a violation.
Caught in the U.S.-China Trade War Crossfire: South Korea
In early 2018 it seemed as if South Korea was stuck in between a rock and a hard place. Trade relations between its two largest trading partners, China and the United States were in a difficult place. China at the time was retaliatingagainst South Korea’s decision to deploy the terminal high altitude area (THAAD) defense system with consumer boycotts and regulatory clampdowns. The United States under President Trump’s administration was looking torenegotiate the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement and is in the process of conducting a section 232 investigation the role of steel imports to U.S. national security.
Despite U.S.-South Korea and China-South Korea bilateral trade relations significantly easing, South Korea is increasingly being caught in the cross-fire of the U.S.-China trade dispute. In particular, as South Korean exports are well intertwined into China’s supply chains, South Korean intermediate goods that are used in the assembly of a final product, in Chinese exports are expected to suffer in particular. If Chinese exports to the U.S. suffer due to U.S. trade measures against Chinese imports, undoubtedly South Korean intermediate exports to China will suffer.
In total, South Korean intermediate goods exports to China composed 78.9 percent of total intermediate goods exports. Overall, the Hyundai Research Institute forecast that South Korean exports to China will fall by US$ 29.6 billion. By sector, electronics exports are anticipated to fall by US$ 10.9 billion while information technology and petrochemical exports will each lose US$ 5.6 billion.
Most recently, the South Korean Ministry of Trade noted that the U.S.-China trade war could “put downward pressure” on South Korean exports to China and potentially slow economic growth. In particular, the effective date of U.S. and Chinese tariffs beginning July 6th is expected to significantly negatively affect South Korean exports to China in the second half of the year.
This Week in History: The July 4 South-North Joint Communiqué
On July 4, 1972, both North Korea and South Korea issued a statement agreeing to work together to reduce inter-Korean tensions. Their statement emphasized three principles: independence, peaceful unification, and national unity. The full statement can be found here. Furthermore, both North Korea and South Korea agreed to not to undertake belligerent rhetoric against each other and prevent military provocations.
They also agreed to conduct exchanges to promote mutual understanding. A direct phone line was to be made to deescalate military tensions and both countries will create a South-North Coordinating Committee to work on issues related to unification. This was due to earlier efforts in May 1972 when South Korea’s Lee Hu-rak, Director of Korea Central Intelligence Agency met North Korea’s official Kim Young-joo in Pyongyang. Lee Hu-rak also met with North Korea’s leader, Kim Il-Sung.
North Korea’s Vice Premier Park Sung-chul also visited Seoul in May 29 - June 1 1972 and the South-North Joint Communique was announced on July 4. However after the statement, both countries could not agree on the implementation. After further disagreement over how to achieve unification, North Korea ended the talks on August 28, 1973. Documents released in 2012suggested that North Korea was hoping the inter-Korean talks could help undermine South Korea’s Park Chung-hee regime and make conditions favorable for unification.
Next Steps on North Korea: Denuclearization and Building a New Relationship
9:00 AM- 10:30 AM, Thursday, July 12, 2018
Korea Economic Institute of America
1800 K Street NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20006
Seoul Leadership, Seoul Power: Riding the Korean Wave
4:30 PM- 5:30 PM, Thursday, July 12, 2018
The Institute of World Politics
1521 16th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036
CAPAL Networking and Career Fair
11:00 AM- 2:00 PM, Friday, July 20, 2018
John Hopkins University, Kenney Auditorium
1740 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20036