|Novelist Pyo Myung-hee, who wrote 'Suddenly Refugee' published by Changbi. Courtesy of Changbi.|
By Ko Dong-hwan
The arrival of more than 550 Yemenis asylum seekers on Jeju Island in May is "an unfamiliar infiltration of a cultural virus," says Korean novelist Pyo Myung-hee.
But, defending the Yeminis against local residents and other Koreans upset about the Muslims and wanting the government to toughen refugee laws and reject the newcomers, she says the virus has "provoked Koreans so hard they have recoiled to an extent beyond rational understanding."
Since the Yemenis landed (from Malaysia) on the tourism-centered island, Korea has been divided over the migrants, debating whether the government should embrace or reject them.
Pyo said the root of the problem was neither racial bigotry nor, as popular politician-turned-novelist Rhyu Si-min said, an ethical clash, but Korean society's chronic "cultural dilemma" ― its inability to assimilate foreign cultures.
"Korean society has only proved its resistance to alien cultures," Pyo told The Korea Times on Yeongjongdo Island in Incheon. "Korea presumptuously reacted to the Yemenis with an excessive jerk. The phenomenon proved our society's cultural diversity is weak."
Pyo said that depending on how Koreans handled the situation, it would be a watershed moment that either "vaccinated" them against resistance to other cultures or left the Koreans as hostile as ever to foreigners.
|As Pyo worked on 'Suddenly Refugee,' she imagined herself as not so different from the asylum seekers in the Immigration Reception Center on Yeongjongdo Island. Provided by Pyo Myung-hee|
"Understanding the Yemenis through a cultural lens is more effective than ethical principles," said Pyo. "Of course, we will face consequences once we accept them. But think of it as a symptom after getting vaccinated. It would be the sign of a sound future with cultural maturity."
Pyo's latest book "Suddenly Refugee," published in March, is about asylum seekers at the island's Immigration Reception Center and local Koreans encountering them. The refugees aimlessly wait to see if they will be accepted or rejected. Foreigners, each with different reasons for being there, bump into unlikely neighbors as destinies cross.
Pyo, who made her literary debut while in her late 30s, moved from Seoul's central Jongno-gu district to the man-made island in 2013. Getting familiar with the largely rural region that is home to Incheon International Airport, the novelist witnessed in the same year a fierce civic protest against the introduction of an Immigration Reception Center. The clash between the authorities and local residents not welcoming the facility in fear of migrants inspired her to find out more about migrants at the center. Her investigation opened her eyes to the foreigners with uncertain futures and Koreans with a habitual hostility toward migrants.
"Koreans are particularly defensive against accepting alien cultures because we haven't had many chances to experience cultural diversity throughout history," Pyo said.
"There are also myths highlighting Korean ethnicity untainted by other races. These myths in turn contribute to our cultural weakness of not being able to embrace alien cultures. Such a situation also explains why Koreans with liberal and conservative minds often condemn each other rather than acknowledging the differences."
|Myanmar nationals granted refugee status arrive at Incheon International Airport on Dec. 23, 2015. They spent a year learning Korean and the country's civic laws at Immigration Reception Center. Korea Times file|
Although the Korean government took preemptive steps to accept foreign migrants by signing the U.N. Refugee Agency's refugee act in 1992 ― the first signatory in East Asia ― and providing related public services from 1994, the legal bar for asylum seekers is notoriously harsh. As of May 2018, out of 40,470 refugee applicants, 20,361 were evaluated and only 839 were granted settlement while 1,540 were allowed to stay on humanitarian status.
Pyo said the tight and slow screening process was the result of the government's "conservative" stance.
"Our government, despite its partnership with the UNHCR and U.N. refugee laws, strangles migrants with our abysmal screening policy," Pyo said. "Other countries, such as those in Europe, that rigorously accepted asylum seekers, would laugh at our government's attitude."
To her, Korea's refugee laws under the justice ministry are an example of over-protecting citizens and a resistance toward migrants.
"The governments of some countries that welcomed migrants paid a hefty price, upsetting politicians and citizens, but I'm sure it gave people some valuable experiences and insights," Pyo said, referring to refugee-friendly Germany and other European countries that only recently toughened anti-refugee policies to reduce the influx.
"But the Korean government, as well as the people, must remember that closing our eyes to an imminent problem might be comfortable and assuring at first, but we will lose the ability to solve problems."
She said history showed that countries that prepared for "winter" ― or hard times ― with industrialization and democratization, met challenges at first, but ultimately ushered in a prosperous civilization and cultural heritage. For Korea, the ongoing refugee issue would evolve into something better or make our reactions even more callous.
|Yemini asylum seekers queue at the Immigration Office on Jeju Island for a free Red Cross medical check-up. Korea Times file|
'We are all refugees'
In "Suddenly Refugee," Pyo offers the thought that historically we are all refugees in a sense and we must break down the barrier between those who are migrants and those who are settled.
"When I saw them, they were no different from us, except that they are away from their homelands" Pyo said, recalling her visits to the Immigration Reception Center to meet asylum seekers while doing research for the novel. "The kids were impish, and their parents wanted security and a place to work in a country without war and violence."
Just as the migrants in Korea are new to the land, so was Pyo who moved to the man-made island built on a landfill and surrounded by mud flats stretching for kilometers ― a rather eerie view far from a beautiful turquoise sea and gleaming coral reefs that one might imagine.
But while she was writing about the refugees in "Suddenly Refugee," she felt an empathy with them, occasionally pondering that she might be writing about herself on a lonely island.
"Whenever you want to enter a world only to be rejected, or denied from where you thought your roots were strong, you encounter the reality of a refugee," Pyo said. "When you find yourself in that position, refugees are not just those in the Caribbean Sea or Syria. They are very much alike yourself."