Seoul – While the sun sets over Gyeongbokgung palace, an angry mob shouts “fake refugees out!” About 1500 people have gathered at a demonstration organized by an online organization called “refugees out”. The target of protest are 500 Yemeni refugees who arrived at Jeju Island earlier this month. The diverse demographics of the crowd surprised me: among the protesters were many students, families, elderly, young couples.
The most eye-catching demonstrators were four men dressed in super hero costumes. A Korean journalist told me that they are famous netizens with a large share of followers among right winged internet users. The presence of these netizen-protestors reminds us that the Refugees Out Movement has its roots online. At online forums such as “refugee out”, demonstrations and petitions are spread among thousands of members. (https://cafe.naver.com/refugeeout/). On these blogs, headings such as “RAPEFUGEES NOT WELCOME” show that the online rhetoric is even more extreme today’s demonstrator’s chants.
Among the speakers at the protest, there was a man who reportedly lived in Saudi Arabia, and vividly described “the oppressed lifestyle caused by Islam law that will definitely come to Korea if we allow refugees to settle”. Also, there was a girl from Jeju island who held an emotional speech about how refugees will rape Korean women and steal jobs from Koreans in the near future. While she burst out into tears, the crow started chanting “Uri nara!” (Our nation!) and “Kungmin mŏnjŏ!” (Korean citizens first!). Other speakers screamed that refugees will distort the harmonious South Korean nation and bring unwanted cultures to South Korea.
Like many of protesters, almost all speakers wore face masks or sunglasses in order to remain anonymous. I couldn’t help but feel some frustration towards their attempts to hide their identity. When protesting in public for a cause you strongly believe in, hiding your identity seems cowardly. Or perhaps even the protesters themselves did not feel completely comfortable with their message.
The atmosphere became especially awkward when two Muslim families provokingly walked past the stage, not saying a word while simply pushing their stroller along the crowd while kindly waving at the people. I expected the aggressive chants to increase, but instead, people looked away uncomfortably while being confronted with the silent protest of the Muslim family.
While the anti-refugee demonstration came to an end, youngsters with rainbow flags painted on their cheeks walked down from Seoul’s City Hall plaza. Today, tens of thousands of people celebrated the Gay Pride Parade in the biggest LGBT-event ever held in South Korea.
The extreme anger at the anti-refugee demonstration on the one hand, and the euphoric joy of the Gay Pride on the other, created a bizarre atmosphere in downtown Seoul tonight. At City Hall plaza, people held banners advocating a Korean society that is more inclusive to minorities. Some hundred meters away, anti-refugee protesters screamed xenophobic chants.
And so, the sweltering heat of South Korea’s summer set the stage for clashing ideologies co-existing within one square kilometer of each other. A wave of increasing liberalism on the one hand, and revived internet-based conservatism on the other, all hit South Korea at the same time. In the coming years, South Korea awaits the extremely complex task of finding a place for all opinions in society. But for now, it seems that the 500 Yemeni refugees are caught in the crossfire.