Refugees part of Korea's history

Refugees part of Korea's history
People walk across a bridge to a pagoda overlooking the sea in the northeastern city of Sokcho. Sokcho is situated north of the 38th parallel and is well-known for its seafood and proximity to the Seoraksan national park. During the Korean war Sokcho received many North Korean refugees, who were housed in a designated area.
PHOTO: AFP

From late President Kim Dae-jung to conscientious objectors and North Korean defectors, South Korea's history has been dotted with marks of refugees since the country's liberation in 1945.

While stepping up efforts to embrace asylum seekers from across the border and around the world since the enactment of Asia's first standalone refugee act in July 2013, Seoul has seen a constant rise in the number of its own citizens who obtained foreign citizenship for political and other reasons.

As of December 2014, 481 refugees and 285 asylum seekers of South Korean origin live overseas, while 1,173 refugees, 3,489 asylum seekers and 204 stateless persons from abroad reside here, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

Between 1951 and January 2013, 559 South Koreans were granted a refugee status, with another 186 undergoing screening. As for North Koreans, the figures reached 1,110 and 1,027 during the same period.

The 1951 Refugee Convention outlines a refugee as someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." Seoul signed the treaty in 1992.

Tokyo's 1910-45 occupation on the peninsula in particular gave birth to various breeds of refugees who had to cross the border for forced labour, independent movement or other reasons. Now millions of ethnic Koreans -- the refugees' descendants -- live across Japan, China, Russia and Central Asia.

In 1947, the Japanese government demanded Koreans residing in Japan to register as foreigners in an apparent attempt to make them exempt from social security and other benefits, even though they did not have a nationality to inscroll because no government had yet been established on either side of the peninsula following its liberation.

Even after the territorial division the next year, many did not choose a South or North Korean nationality, nor were they naturalized as Japanese. The number of stateless "Zainichi" (meaning residing in Japan) is projected to stand at some 30,000 now, classified by Tokyo for administrative reasons as having Joseon citizenship.

Their decades-long struggle is not confined to social discrimination at their second home. Their motherland, too, has been failing to facilitate what the people see as minimal civil liberty, such as freedom to visit.

Their lack of passports makes any overseas travel difficult, as they must acquire a reentry permit from the Japanese government on each return trip. To visit South Korea, they also need to apply for a travel certificate, but are often denied for unclear reasons or forced to change their nationality.

In December 2013, Seoul's Supreme Court ruled against Jeong Young-hwan, who raised a suit in 2009 against the South Korean consulate-general in Osaka for rejecting his request for a travel certificate. A "Joseon" national and university researcher on Korean studies, he had not had much difficulty traveling to Seoul until then, but the conservative Lee Myung-bak government denied it because he visited Pyongyang in 1999 and met an official of a pro-North Korea organisation in Japan in 2006.

The come-off of Jeong's years-long legal battle came as a shock to many other Zainichi and activists. It also ran counter to the National Human Rights Commission's 2009 recommendation to the foreign minister to correct customs that officials at overseas diplomatic missions urge or coax stateless Koreans in Japan to pick one nationality.

"The fact that South Korean nationality held concurrently with permanent residence of Japan is inadequate as a nationality has long been a contentious issue in Zainichi public discourse, especially during the intense confrontation between North Korea and South Korea against the backdrop of the Cold War," said Moon Young-min, an art professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the journal Japan Focus earlier this year.

"Given the combination of the colonial past and contentious postcolonial involvement with Cold War politics by Zainichi Koreans, which virtually split the expatriate community into the North Korea-supporting camp and the South Korea-supporting camp, naturalization continues to carry a certain weight as a litmus test of one's allegiance and integrity."

A more renowned exile is late President Kim Dae-jung, who had fought against political persecution as a prominent opposition leader during the dictatorship under Park Chung-hee. He took asylum twice -- in Japan in the 1970s and in the US in the 1980s -- amid several assassination attempts, kidnapping, imprisonment, house arrest and other hardships.

Long after democracy flourished on this soil and the Nobel laureate's presidency ended, the country continues to struggle to transform into a safe asylum provider, due in part to the ongoing territorial division and inter-Korean face-off.

In recent years, a growing number of North Korean defectors resettled in the South opt to leave for a third country such as the US, Britain or Australia. The primary rationale behind the exodus was to access a better social safety net and break free from social exclusion and cutthroat competition against more affluent, better educated South Koreans in an already saturated job market.

Defectors here have reported a wide range of social and financial problems. Cultural and educational gaps could take years to overcome. Prejudice among South Koreans is another factor as politics and ideology frame them despite their common ethnicity.

A 2011 survey on 8,299 defectors by the North Korean Refugees Foundation showed that more than 30 per cent earn less than 1 million won ($890) a month. The jobless rate averaged at 12.1 per cent -- 3.3 times the general population's 3.7 per cent.

Critics have called on the government to set up a system to help defectors land a more secure job and plan for their later years.

With all physically able young men being subject to compulsory military service for about two years here, meanwhile, Seoul has also been taking flak for incarcerating conscientious objectors despite the religious freedom enshrined in the constitution.

In 2012, Lee Ye-da became the first conscientious objector to earn the refugee status in France. The 24-year-old has since been in the forefront of the campaign against the practice.

He was one of the 5,723 people who have refused to serve in the military over the past 10 years, according to data submitted by the Defence Ministry to Rep. Jin Sung-joon of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy. Of the 5,215 who received a criminal penalty, 599 are currently in jail.

Watchtower International, a Jehovah's Witnesses nongovernmental organisation, estimated that since 1950, 18,060 conscientious objectors have been put in prison in South Korea.

The issue was once again highlighted in the US State Department's annual international religious freedom report released this month and a deliberation last week on Seoul's implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Geneva.

"While absolved of any additional military commitment, after serving time in prison conscientious objectors had a criminal record that could affect future employment opportunities, including limitations on holding public office or working as a public servant," the US document said.

To stem the outflow of refugees and preserve the right of the objectors, the UN, the US and other countries and civic groups have urged the Constitutional Court here to decriminalize conscientious objection and the government to devise an alternative service system.

Seoul remains cautious given unsettled worries that any substitute measure may well be taken advantage of by potential evaders, though it apparently acknowledges the criticism. In January, President Park Geun-hye reduced sentences by one to four months for about 100 Jehovah's Witness objectors in prison.

"Military service is a national obligation under the constitution, and the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court have also ruled for punishment on vetoers," Vice Justice Minister Kim Joo-hyun said during the deliberation in Geneva last Friday.

"An alternative service system is an issue that can be considered as the security situation on the peninsula changes and public consensus builds."

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