Editor’s Note: Bo Seo is a Korean-Australian graduate of Harvard College and former Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University. He’s written for publications including The New York Times, Washington Post and The Australian. The views expressed here are his own.
Earlier this year, 550 Yemeni asylum seekers landed on the resort island of Jeju, putting many South Koreans in the unfamiliar position of being forced to accept outsiders who many believed had no right to be there.
As has become second nature in South Korea’s young democracy, residents turned to democratic instruments to vent their dissatisfaction. Protestors took to the street to demand the deportation of the refugees; hundreds of thousands more signed an online petition calling for them to be removed.
The rest of the world reacted in outrage to the alleged racism of the Koreans. An op-ed in the New York Times claimed that the incident “shows how deep xenophobia runs (in Korea.)” The Japan Times published an article highlighting the Trump-ian overtones of the Korean opposition to the asylum seekers.
The prevalence of xenophobia – literally, a fear of the outsider – in Korean society is not to be underestimated or excused. It is an instinct born of monoculturalism and calcified by the experience of occupation and war. And, as even the Korean government has occasionally acknowledged, it remains a powerful force in our politics.
However, xenophobia alone cannot account for the Korean opposition to the Yemeni refugees. And attempts to narrow our explanation to an accusation of bigotry risk overlooking the structural factors at play in this crisis.
Here, a puzzle reveals a deeper nuance. Polling estimates that between 49% to 56% of the general Korean population oppose granting asylum to the Yemeni refugees. But, in a surprising result, the opposition among Korean youth in their 20s and 30s are considerably higher – 70% and 60%, respectively.
Speaking with young Koreans, what I hear is less a crude expression of racism than a frustration with the conditions of life in Korea. There is one word that comes up again and again: yeoyu (roughly, breathing room.) It’s what they don’t have; it’s what they want.
In a situation that President Moon Jae-in described as a “crisis” and “disaster-like,” youth unemployment in Korea has soared since 2013 and has now reached a 19-year high: as of July, 338,000 Koreans aged 25-34 were unemployed, up from 285,000 in July 2015.
The conversation in Korea now circles the question, how do we avoid a repeat of Japan’s “Lost Decade?”
Among the Korean youth, bleak economic prospects coincide with reduced confidence in the political system. Young people helped elevate Moon Jae-in to the presidency, partly on the strength of his promise to tackle youth unemployment, and have seen little progress to date. They are a generation accustomed to disappointment by their political leaders: of Moon’s three immediate successors, two are behind bars, and the third was committed suicide after facing corruption allegations.
The precarious economic and political conditions in Korea take an invasive toll on the personal lives of its youth. The number of marriages in South Korea fell to a record low in 2017, with many young Koreans delaying marriage until they find stable employment.
This generation of Koreans call themselves the “Sampo Generation” (three resignations generation) who have given up on dating, marriage, and having children. Many of them call the country in which they live, “Hell Joseon” or “Hell Korea.”
The dissatisfaction among the Korean youth is difficult to understand on the basis of objective measures alone. It is as much a product of frustrated expectations, as it is of high unemployment or low marriage rates.
This was a generation of Koreans born, decades after Armistice and the rapid economic growth of the 1960s and 80s, to a stable and industrialized country. The sacrifices of their parents and grandparents were calculated to bear fruit in their lives.
Growing up in newly prosperous Korea, millennials made sacrifices of their own. They withstood one of the most stressful education systems in the world, and took out student loans to pay for college. The bargain they made with Korea’s fierce meritocracy was simple: in exchange for our hard work, give us security and prosperity – in a word, yeoyu. This is the basic compact that, in the eyes of many young Koreans, is breaking down.
This is the domestic context in Korea into which the Yemeni asylum seekers arrived. Against this background, some Koreans viewed the asylum seekers as interlopers who threatened to take the relief that justly belonged to them.
“I am a national of the Republic of Korea,” reads one sign at an anti-refugee demonstration in Seoul, “the people of our nation come first.”
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum once wrote, “anger becomes an alluring substitute for grieving, promising agency and control when one’s real situation does not offer control.” Under the xenophobic rage that the arrival of 550 Yemeni refugees inspired among the Korean youth, a deeper insecurity bubbles. You can see in their petitions the desire to regain control. You can hear in their shouts of protest, tucked away in the minor key, a cry for help.