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The “Unpeople” of South Korea

The “Unpeople” of South Korea

A term ‘unperson’, from George Orwell’s newspeak, refers to an individual or a member of a group who is systematically stripped of social and political rights, including basic human rights. Who are the ‘unpeople’ of South Korea?  They are an overwhelming majority of illegal migrants in the country who lack basic rights and security and believed to deserve it according to the laws and principles under which Korean society operates.

As of September 23, 2018, there are 330,005 foreigners, mostly from South East Asia and post-Soviet countries, who are residing in South Korea illegally. Those who accepted illegal status in Korea with a goal of supporting their families and improving their economic conditions often have to suffer not only racism, verbal abuses, precariousness, substandard working and living conditions, but also a constant threat of deportation.

Immigration raids periodically conducted by the Korean government not only deprive migrant workers of their means of survival but also leave in them a long-term psychological damage.

August 3, 2017 [Chungju, South Korea]

“He is not answering my phone calls,” said a woman in her late 30s, in a trembling voice. “I sent him a message asking him to lock the door, but he still did not reply”. She feared that her husband, with whom she was illegally residing in Korea, might have been caught by the immigration police.

August 4, 2017 [Chungju, South Korea]

The dead body of her husband was found in a nearby canal, where he was trying to hide from the immigration police. Shocked I was. Others were not. After all, it is not the first time they have come across such an incident.

How come any person can be complicit with the law that resulted in the death of a human being? Should not the law serve the opposite purpose? How come a person who works long hours at a sweatshop to put food on a table is labeled as a criminal, who needs to be chased by the police?

September 5, 2018 [Yangsan, South Korea]

It is 12:46 pm. 14 minutes left until the end of my break, and I should go back to the production line. A factory worker, yells at me and other two migrant workers, ordering us to get to the top floor of the factory building. Then, we are ordered to enter a tiny storage room. A secretary girl explains to me with a broken English that the immigration police came to the factory to catch us. She tells us not to make any noise, turns off the light and locks the door from the outside. It was a long wait; over an hour — an hour of humiliation.

It is 14:24 pm. The door opens. We are told to run towards the car waiting for us outside the factory. We are transferred to safety.

As I was sitting in a tiny room trying not to make a noise, I felt like a prey, a small rabbit hiding in a hole, waiting to be hunted by a predator. I did not understand what was going on. I did understand that the power of an immigration officer to forcefully remove me from that physical space was illegitimate and had nothing to do with me as an individual. Yet irrespective of how hard I tried, a voice inside me kept repeating: “You are nobody. You do not deserve to be treated respectfully”.

What kind of a system is it!? How come otherwise decent people are okay with it? What an absurdity!? What a shame!?

Why illegal migrants have a moral high ground

In my first year in Korea, I have heard a few stories about illegal migrant workers running up to the mountains from immigration police. “It is bad that they have to endure it, but they only have themselves to blame. After all, they have broken the law”, I was told by a friend of mine. But is that really so?

When the law itself is unjust, the only way to act justly is to break that law. According to the North Korean law, North Korean soldiers are not allowed to cross the border between North and South Korea. However, when a North Korean soldier crossed the border to defect to the South (November 2017), he was applauded by almost everyone in South Korea and beyond as a hero fighting for his freedom. By crossing the border, he was breaking the law, but it is common sense that a law that stops a person from moving to a better and safer environment is unjust.

It logically follows that illegal migrant workers are perfectly justified to break immigration laws of South Korea that stop them from escaping their troubled economic, social and political conditions. Their breaking an unjust law should be supported and they should also be applauded as heroes fighting for the betterment of their conditions.

South Korean media outlets love demonizing North Korean regime, yet refuse to look at the injustices of their own. Every time a North Korean defector makes an escape, it is used to fuel state propaganda about how evil tyranny North Korea is and what a wonderful human rights heaven South Korea is. How convenient it is to sit in a comfortable office and to brag about the wrongdoings of another state!? Why not take a moment and take a look at your own tyranny!? Speaking of hypocrisy, it is hard to go beyond that!

Immigration is just an idea. A violent one!

“Oppose the Refugee Act, passed without citizens’ consent,” read signs held by Koreans protesting against the arrival of a few desperate Yemeni refugees on Jeju Island (June 2018). It is not surprising at all, considering the existence of a deep-rooted racism and xenophobia in a Korean society, which very few deny. However, an interesting observation is what they claim as a basis for the legitimacy of their demands – democratic rights. In a democratic society, people collectively make decisions and actively participate in formulating laws and regulations in the government. Yet, history also teaches that when fundamental freedoms and human rights are ignored, society descends into savagery. The same way it was primitive to kill gladiators to please the Colosseum, it is primitive to limit freedom of movement of a human being.

We should look at immigration not as a movement of people across borders, but as an anti-human idea imposed on us through violent means. Just like racism, sexism, and nationalism which put a certain group of people on a superior position over others, immigration is an idea that citizens of a country are superior over so-called immigrants. In a sexist society, it is normal for a husband, who is seen as naturally superior, to make decisions on behalf of his wife. Similarly, in a modern nation-state, it is normal for citizens to make decisions on behalf of immigrants. Those decisions are then imposed on migrants through socio-political institutions of violence. Because, I cannot just say: “Okay, it sounds ridiculous. I do not agree with this idea” and move on freely, my movement is limited by borders, passports, visas, and police.

Future generations will look at immigration with disgust, the same way we now look at slavery. And perhaps, they would be laughing at us for supporting and being complicit with ideas as absurd as an immigration. After all, the debate about immigration is not about how migrants benefit the country economically or how much threat they pose to local residents’ security. The debate boils down to where a society stands in a spectrum of civility. It is about reaching a degree of intellect and humility to be able to ask a simple question: “Who am I to decide the fate of another human being!?”

A dream far away

One thing I learned from my time with illegal migrants is that a migrant worker, toiling all day under verbal abuses, is not interested in innovative research methods, papers, presentations, and debates about his struggles. They do not care if someone comes up with original ideas about how the capitalist system functions and how badly screwed up they are. What is the point of learning about your exploitation from a different angle!? The point is to stop it!

The ‘unpeople’ of South Korea do understand the realities they face on a daily basis. They might not know the terminology and specific facts, but they do recognize who the system works for and against. However, one cannot expect activism from people in dire conditions. Due to their legal status, no realistic chances are available for illegal migrants to make their voices heard for a larger audience in Korea. The hope of improvement through government is not even an option, for obvious reasons. Since even the intend of humane treatment of illegal migrants is missing among Korea’s privileged, structural change looks like a dream far away.

Source: The “Unpeople” of South Korea