Meet Yiombi Thona, one of South Korea’s highest-profile refugees. He came to South Korea in 2002 after fleeing his native Congo under fear of arrest. As a member of the Congo intelligence service, he had leaked documents revealing government corruption and was in turn accused of trying to lead a coup d’état. Despite finally receiving refugee status from the South Korean government in 2008, it wasn’t until 2013 that he was able to find legal employment and buy a house in his name. For 11 years before that, he sustained a living through illegal factory work and later support from local churches and NGOs.
People like Thona complicate how South Korea thinks of multiculturalism, termed damunhwa in Korean. The South Korean idea of a culturally open society evokes a racially specific image: a family of a South Korean man, married to a woman from another part of Asia. While the man learns little to nothing about the woman’s home country, she has to integrate herself into South Korean culture and the husband’s family, and of course give birth to his children.
The assimilationist view of multiculturalism in South Korea means that most refugees have no chance at genuine acceptance into South Korean society. Difference in language, culture, religion and ethnicity poses significant challenges and means that these newcomers will stick out no matter how hard they try.
To Thona, now professor of human rights and multiculturalism at Gwangju University, damunhwa is a highly limited and problematic paradigm. To him, multicultural means “many cultures living together.” The South Korean government, however, legally defines damunhwa only as Korean people marrying non-Koreans; this view excludes many foreign students, migrant workers, and refugees like him. This means that Thona’s own family, who came from the Congo to join him in 2009, doesn’t qualify for any assistance under multicultural family support programs.
Once, Thona called one of the country’s many “multicultural” centers on behalf of an acquaintance looking to take Korean classes. The staff on the other end first asked whether the man was married to a Korean. Mr. Thona told her that he wasn’t. She responded, “No, no, no. This is a damunhwa center.”
Critics of damunhwa centers see them as promoting one-sided assimilation of cultural outsiders into South Korean society. Some say, with classes offering only how to do things like make kimchi or speak Korean, ‘Korean Culture Center’ would be a more fitting description.
Refugees, in many ways, expose the limited scope of South Korea’s multiculturalism. They put to the test whether the society is willing to accommodate outsiders, and whether the government’s seemingly open attitude toward multiculturalism is genuine.
Since the South Korean government started accepting refugee applications in 1994, over 15,000 asylum seekers have applied, but only 580 received refugee status, including Thona. According to NANCEN, a refugee human rights center, South Korea boasted a refugee acceptance rate of 3.8 percent as of Dec. 31, 2015.
In 2012, the country’s refugee law was overhauled, prompting some to call the country a “beacon for refugees.” But the reform was limited; while the law called for consideration of situations at refugees’ home countries, provision of interpreters, work permits for applicants and social support benefits among other changes, the law also didn’t mention a specific number of refugees the government intended to accept.
That’s why little changed. Instead of refugees being recognized in much larger numbers, applicants are now more likely to receive what’s called a ‘humanitarian status’, the South Korean government’s concoction which affords almost none of the protections outlined under the UN’s refugee treaties.
The government’s reluctance to accept refugees is enough to suggest that genuine multiculturalism isn’t wanted in South Korea. But for the refugees themselves, simply leaving is no option. They are here because they cannot go back home. They must put down roots and make the best of the difficult situation.
Once recognized by the government, refugees have the same legal rights and protections as South Korean citizens, with the exception of voting or running for office. They’re also able to sponsor visas (as Thona has done) so their immediate family can join them, a privilege that few other migrants receive.
The ordeal, though isn’t over. At one point during the interview, Thona looked pointedly at me, a light-skinned Canadian. “Problems faced by Westerners in South Korea are nothing compared to those faced by people who come from Africa, South Asia or Southeast Asia,” he said. He told me, there’s a sort of national inferiority complex in South Korea, known as the ‘America complex.’ Western foreigners — generally Caucasian — are often on the receiving end of preferential treatment. But when it comes foreigners from Africa or elsewhere in Asia — the regions where most refugees in South Korea are from — the tables are turned. “They don’t live well,” Thona said.
Even after successfully receiving refugee status, Thona confronted challenge that many other foreigners would not. As Mr. Thona argues, the treatment refugees receive in daily life has little to do with their legal status and everything to do with their skin color. Bringing up the legal protections he was entitled to often got him nowhere. When Thona lodged complaints with local authorities about being denied access to government services he was entitled to, this was the typical response: “Don’t mind about those laws. Follow what I am telling you. You don’t have the right to do this, because you are a foreigner.”
Time and time again, Thona is reminded that he is an outsider in South Korean society, even though legally he is a member of the country. For him, trips abroad mean a trip to the airport investigation room, to be grilled by immigration officers both when he departs and when he returns. “What’s this? Where did you get it?” they say, looking at his refugee traveling document — similar to a passport — which they don’t always recognize.
He’s saved somewhat now by how frequently he travels, as most of the immigration staff at the airport now know who he is. But when it comes to registering his papers in their computer, he still has to tell them what to do. Despite signing in 1992 the set of international treaties that defined refugee law — the UN Refugee Convention and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees — the government still hasn’t found the time to train its frontline immigration staff on how to handle a single-page document.
The government is certainly very interested in passing laws and presenting a good face to the international community. But how genuinely invested is it in educating its people and fostering a more tolerant culture for outsiders? For example, a comprehensive survey of millennials (born between 1995 and 2001) found that 42 percent of those surveyed in South Korea felt the government should make it harder for immigrants to live and work in the country (with 13 percent feeling the opposite), by far the most negative view among the 20 countries surveyed.
Thona, who is now an advocate of refugee rights as well as a professor, sees similar perspectives in his classes as well. His students tell him that refugees are terrorists and a threat to security. He counters by pressing them to give him a name, just one, of a refugee in South Korea who has committed a crime. They can’t, of course.
Thona’s experiences with raising his children here show this lack of openness all too well. When trying to find an elementary school for them to attend, the first school he called, unsurprisingly, wanted to know where the children were from. Once the staff person realized that Congo is in Africa, the answer quickly came that they didn’t have any spots open.
Once he found a school, his children were hard not to notice. Neighborhood kids would follow them to and from school, some hitting his children. The teachers at the school provided no support and the police weren’t willing to intervene.
“Refugees don’t need papers or good text,” Thona said, alluding to the fact that most of the challenges refugees face have little to do with what legal status they’re in. “They need their daily life.”
Now, he says, his children are doing well and are “modern Koreans,” not necessarily the Koreans that the damunhwa centers envision, but Korean nevertheless. His second son was even near the top of his class in Korean studies. But Thona is still concerned for his children’s future.
He knows his children will always be seen through their ethnicity and their country of birth. So he advises them to choose studies that will enable them to make money on their own. “If they have to go through the systems in South Korea, they will have many problems reaching financial independence.”
They’ve started down that road already. His three oldest children are now minor celebrities thanks to a YouTube channel that features their comical take on life in South Korea, and his oldest recently appeared on a television program.
On YouTube, Thona’s children have their own show, titled “Stories from Home of Rabbi, Prince of Congo.”
In a sense, they’re following in their father’s footsteps. Mr. Thona himself spent many years talking about refugee issues and advocating acceptance of multicultural families. The reputation he cultivated eventually led to his position as a university professor. Looking at his own experience and what his children are doing, Thona says the secret to success for refugees and immigrants of color seems to be: “Be famous.”
He laughs, but it’s not entirely in jest. From his own experience and that of other African refugees he’s met, it’s his belief that without a high profile, prospects can be grim.
Cover Image: Prof. Yiombi Thona, a Congolese refugee and prominent human rights activist in South Korea, at Gwangju University where he teaches (Daniel Corks/Korea Exposé)