“How are you?” I asked him.
“I’m very fine!” Yiombi Thona answered. “Don’t worry too much about that. I’m used to it.”
On the other end of the phone, Thona was referring to the multiple death threats he had received since his interview with daily newspaper Joongang Ilbo last Sunday. Thona is a Congolese refugee who came to South Korea in 2002 and achieved legal refugee status six years later. In the Joongang interview, he criticized South Korea’s idea of multiculturalism, claiming it didn’t constitute genuine diversity but promoted one-sided assimilation.
“I’ve gotten many unknown calls, telling me to leave,” said Thona, who is now a professor at Gwangju University. “They said, ‘The country is mono-ethnic and we don’t need foreigners. We don’t need multiculturalism.'”
Anonymous callers, some of whom identified themselves as Ilbe members, even called Thona’s eldest son, saying, “Tell your father to shut up. We know your address.” Ilbe is a far-right online community, notorious for its members’ aggressive misogyny, racism, homophobia and even violence.
“Is this a democratic society? A developed society?” Thona said. “What does development mean? Development isn’t just about building cars and computers.”
South Korea is still relatively ethnically homogenous: Foreigners residing in the country (including short-term visitors) accounted for less than two million people in 2015, according to Korean Statistical Information Service. That’s a little less than four percent of the country’s entire population.
Thona is a minority among the minorities: He is one of only 580 individuals in South Korea to have received legally-recognized refugee status. Formerly a member of the Congo intelligence service, he fled his native country after leaking documents revealing government corruption. “I’m not a coward guy, I’m a warrior,” he boasted. “I always fend against injustice. I’m always fighting.”
Today, Thona is fighting in a society that has a long way to go in tolerating diversity. A 2015 government survey showed that South Koreans scored an average of 53.95 points out of 100 in their “ability to accept multiculturalism.” This score was about three points higher than in 2011. The survey pointed out that while South Koreans’ aversion to and stereotypes against foreigners had improved, there was an increasing tendency to demand “unilateral assimilation” from foreigners.
This tendency ties in with Thona’s biggest criticisms about the South Korean version of multiculturalism. He is a vocal critic of the country’s numerous “multicultural centers” which assist foreigners with various services. “There are no multiculturalism centers in South Korea,” he said. “Foreigners learn Korean and learn how to make kimchi. The centers are Korean culture centers. They’re assimilation centers. If you call yourself multicultural, talk about multicultural things!”
The Korean Institute for Healthy Family, which oversees the nationwide network of multicultural centers, had no official comment at the time of publication.
Thona said his activism is inviting as many expressions of support as racist attacks. After the Joongang interview on Sunday, numerous South Koreans reached out to him to convey their solidarity. Thona isn’t deterred by the death threats, criticisms and general uphill battle. “I’m a part of this country,” he said. “I’m one of its citizens. I have the right and duty to raise any issue I see.”
Cover Image: The South Korean government often promotes the country as culturally diverse. (Source: Korea.net)
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