With European countries tightening migration even more after the ‘Summer of Migration’ in 2015, 500 people from Yemen arrived on the South Korean island of Jeju in 2018 seeking asylum. In response, 700 million people signed an online public petition against their asylum acceptance and a constitutional amendment on asylum law. The fierce backlash in South Korea came from not only nationalists – but also people who had declared themselves as feminist. Young-Rong Choo and Aram Lee join to discuss the reckoning this moment sparked for the feminist movement in South Korea and how migration, racism, and feminisms from South Korea to Germany are deeply intertwined.

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Guests

Young-Rong Choo is a feminist and anti-racist activist in Berlin. She works as a projectmanager on political and art projects, as an editor, and as a translator. She is in charge of the Korean distribution of the German film Audre Lorde — The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992. Also, she studies philosophy focusing on political ontology and critical theory of hegemony at Freie University in Berlin.

Aram Lee studies urban sociology in Humboldt University Berlin, and her research focuses on critical urban studies — specifically migrant women and their spatial mobility. She worked as a freelance editor of and and coordinator of community-based projects in Berlin.

Kommt!…


Transcript & translation

JENNIFER
Hello, everyone. Welcome to IWS Radio, a podcast on the migrant women experience. It feels good to be back. I am Jennifer, one of the moderators and participants for today’s conversation.

NGOC
And I’m Ngoc, also moderating and participating.

JENNIFER
Last time, we talked about the inhumane conditions built by the EU border and asylum policies in Greece and in Germany. This time, we will discuss the situation of migrants and refugees in South Korea, and look at the parallels and differences between South Korea and Germany specifically, but also the European Union.

NGOC
Yes, and I think this is something so important for us to have as a topic because according to a report, South Korea only accepted 4% of people who are seeking asylum in 2020. So that’s 4% of the 4000 or so who applied and in neighboring Japan, the acceptance rate was even lower and has consistently been less than 1%.

So here, we really want to understand what is going on, and also where this issue intersects with the feminist movement in South Korea. So we’re really excited to have Young and Aram with us for the program. They both are from South Korea and live currently in Berlin. And they will talk with us today about feminism, racism, and asylum border policies in South Korea.

So Young and Aram, would you like to start with introducing yourselves?

YOUNG
Hello, I’m Young, originally, Young-Rong. I was born, educated, socialized, and have studied and worked in South Korea. Since 2012, I’m living in Germany as a feminist and anti-racist activist, and creating various forms of political and cultural content.

ARAM
Hi, this is Aram and I’m also from South Korea. I was also born and raised and educated and worked in South Korea. Since 2014, I’ve moved to Berlin. Currently I’m studying urban sociology and focusing on migrant women and their spatial mobility.

JENNIFER
Thanks to both of you for being here. It’s so exciting to be around and listen to more about the work that you’re doing, which is so important. First, I would like you to say something about the Korea Forum Feminism Reboot and probably introduce the magazine that you’re working on.

YOUNG
Yes, our Feminism Reboot is the 28th edition of the German magazine Korean Forum. Aram and I had worked as editors, and this edition is about the new wave of feminist and gender discourse since 2006 in South Korea. It raises other related issues on the Korean peninsula, which means around South and North Korea.

ARAM
And the term “feminism reboot” tends to explain the certain phenomenon and was originally defined by South Korean culture critics Sohn Hee-Jung, and this term is mostly used in film language, like “Spider Man Reboot” and things like that. And this English word “reboot” is used for the new creation of a work of fiction based on the basic features of previous work, but without maintaining the continuity of the plot. So we saw that the new feminist movement since 2015 is very unique and in a different phase compared to the feminist movement of the last 100 years in the Korean peninsula. But it’s still in history, a current continuation of the previous movement.

YOUNG
Yes, and we picked up some important incidents, events and movements from 2016 to 2020. Then we rearranged this chronologically, such as femicide in Gangnam, Gangnam Station 2016 May and #MeToo movement 2018 January, and spy cams 2018 May, and then Women Against Yemeni Refugees on the Jeju Island 2018 June. Yeah, and then 2019 April, about abortion issues and 2019 autumn suicide of two young Kpop singers and 2020 about trans women and 2020 about the new way of sexual exploitation on the web for Telegram, and this one is highly organized by just ordinary men mostly.

ARAM
Before we talk about the main topic and our main discourses, I can briefly introduce the Yemeni issue in Korea. So since the beginning of the Civil War in Yemen in 2014, many Yemenis have tried to apply for asylum in Europe. But as a result of the triggered tightened European immigration policy as of 2018, which was also triggered from the German side. Southeast Asian countries became more and more the destination of refugees seeking asylum. So they did toward the route to south or Southeast Asia.

So with tourist visas, around 500 Yemenis arrived on Jeju Island alone in 2018 to apply for asylum. At the time, 700 million people signed an online public petition against Yemeni asylum acceptance, and constitutional amendment on asylum law in Korea. This led to a fierce backlash in South Korean society from both nationalists and also women who understand feminism only for biological women.

So in addition to an already widespread xenophobic atmosphere that looked down on migrant workers from poorer countries, some women used a racist and islamophobic prejudice and fake news to add fuel to fire. Under the slogan, “our nationals first, stop the hate against asylum seekers”, not only the right wing left sided, but also radical feminists and intersectional feminists aligned themselves for this issue.

So we found an active voice Bomyung Kim who organized a Facebook group “borderless feminism”, together with other intersectional feminists right after the Yemeni issue in 2018. And the texts gathered on the page, later were published as a book ‘Borderless Feminism’ in Korea. And the author of the article who we invited for this, “Frauen demonstrieren gegen jemenitische Geflüchtete auf der Insel Jeju (Women demonstrate against Yemeni refugees on Jeju Island)”, and she works in women’s studies with the focus of feminist history and radical politics. So that’s how we introduce her article and her opinion to our magazine.

YOUNG
We picked this article for this podcast, this episode, because this incident or movement was kind of a turning point for a new wave of Korean feminism in the 21st century because before that, most of the young feminists in South Korea were concerned more about domestic violence or sexual harassment in the public sphere, like working space, or schools and so on and body politics, for instance, body sovereignity or abortion issues mostly, and also “Me too” movement. The “Me too” movement was huge after the US. But then, after the arrival of Yemeni refugees, most of them were male refugees, this movement, this new, huge movement, was somehow divided into two branches also. The one was solidarity with Muslim male refugees, and the other one is against them. So we picked this issue because it has huge meaning, not only for South Korean feminism and also the nation itself, but also here in Berlin and EU politics because the two countries are so apart, I mean geographically, but they are so deeply connected.

NGOC
So, I just want to pick up on what you mentioned, Young, about this deep inter-connection between here and also South Korea. So I want to ask you both, what intersections and links do you see between Germany and the EU more broadly, and South Korea in terms of the situation and conditions facing migrants and refugees?

ARAM
Before we answer, I can also play the rhetorics, mostly used in the protests against refugees in Korea. Here they say “before becoming like a failed Europe, the government should wake up”. So definitely, you can see the protesters make a lot of reference to European countries.

YOUNG
So, which means the people who protest there, they interpret the EU border politics or the opening the door of 2016/15 in Germany, and also other countries, they see this as fail. So, they demonstrate, Europe has failed because of refugees, so we shouldn’t go the same way.

JENNIFER
When they talk about the failure of the European Union. The failure of the European Union is on purpose. They discuss everything, but they refuse to discuss the basic living conditions of people in transit. It’s on purpose, this is chaos they produce on purpose, so that they can have something to politicize about. It can outline clearly, they are able to use the images of the chaos they have produced, which of course, are from very certain and very particular communities. The other thing is that, here we can say what it is, it’s outright racism. And this racism is something that people, from the onset, they do not acknowledge that they are being racist or saying statements that could, of course, affect the other people. But I would be much more also interested in hearing what are the anti-racist slogans that people counter-reacted.

ARAM
Let me point out that the slogan from the site of pro-refugee, it was more compared to the anti-racist slogans, it might sound a bit more abstract, but they aligned themselves with “stop hate against asylum seekers”, “welcome refugees”, but like they get a lot of accusation from the other side: what if they do these things to our country? What if? This is all based on this, not based on fact but based on this kind of imagination, that all the worst case possible, which we heard happened in Europe. So this is also linked to the policy topic that by saying the numbers in Korea, unlike here, there was like 500 refugees or Yemeni refugees arriving on Jeju Island, right?

JENNIFER
Only 500?

ARAM
Only 500 right! And people freaked out and Korea is not the country, we never had refugees in our history. So Korea always was kind of proud that we are one of the first countries in Asia to enact asylum law. And we are also the first country in Asia to sign up in the asylum committee worldwide and then when it comes to this real, the case of accepting refugees and taking care of the organization or housing etc. They are really reluctant to make any more detail or more concrete policy or solutions.

JENNIFER
So we can conclude it is failure, failure by the policymakers to organize properly that people have the basic human needs they need without creating the commotions that comes up with people being in dire need of survival.

YOUNG
Yeah, Aram also before mentioned about it, the Korean society exactly, specifically South Korean society has never experienced refugee issues as a host. So after the Korean War in the 1950s, South Korean society only remembers its own experience as a refugee, so not a host. So this country was so destroyed after the war, it was only seventy years ago. And this country achieved massive success. I mean, economically and also politically.

ARAM
Because of this fast growth, at the same time, this yearning to become aligned with other Western wealthy countries. So they sign this refugee committee and policy and also enact this law, asylum law. But inside, they are not ready actually.

JENNIFER
They’re not prepared.

ARAM
Not prepared, but they want to be in this kind of alignment with other wealthy countries. And there’s also a very complicated issue of this reproduction of accusation of refugees as a sexual perpetrator in Korea, because usually Korean media exclusively showed the cases in Europe, especially, when they accept the refugees and “see? what happened in Europe, they are raping the people, there is a lot of sexual harassment going on”. But this only focuses without showing how people are welcoming and how the refugees themselves really strive themselves to live in the new society. I think this bias outlet of newspaper really triggered this reproduction of the image of Islamic men.

NGOC
Yeah, and I think what you both are bringing in, there’s so much here, but I think just to start with that, you’re pointing out the ways in which this racist, nationalist discourse is being created everywhere, no matter if we’re in Europe, if we’re in the US, if we’re in South Korea and we can see so clearly from what you’re sharing, how South Korea, the discourse that you’re bringing out here, is made possible by bringing in this example of Europe and Germany. I think there’s a lot here that we want to continue going into, but maybe, it could be a good time for a break. So I know you brought a song, Young. Do you want to talk to us about what this song is and what it means to you?

YOUNG
Yeah, I brought one of the common protests songs in South Korea: 바위처럼, means, like a rock, stone, so let’s live like a rock, let’s stay together like this. By Kkot-Da-Gi, this group, and this one was released in 1994, and its poetic lyrics remind me of always the atmosphere on the street.

 

[SONG: Kkot-Da-Gi – 바위처럼” 꽃다지 ‘Like Rock (Stone)’]

 

JENNIFER
What a song, that was a very interesting song. And I wish I could hear what they were saying, but from what you said, it projected even the energies and the times and the strength in this time, when this song was being played. I am really interested in knowing what the words are about. Now we can dive into the next question where we have one common history of being colonized. We are all countries that have been colonized at some point. But why is the topic of racism still so eminent, even though we share this kind of discourse of being colonized?

YOUNG
We all share the experience of being oppressed, colonized, and we have experience of violence as a victim, but why are we oppressing other oppressed people? And the question you brought up, we see still that so many marginalized groups and communities are marginalizing, reproducing other violences against other marginalized groups and communities – such as anti-Black racism in Asian countries, anti-Muslim in Asian countries. I mean, in white Western countries we see it everyday. But yes.

ARAM
Like we are hearing Young say, I also always think, why are we finding this leveraging – leveraging me between someone I want to find as inferior, so that I can kind of have this kind of fake feeling of – I’m going towards these hierarchical steps forward. And in that sense, I also think when people say, “good migrants and modern migrants,” this rhetoric is produced. So I think this makes sense to see how people try to leverage themselves with the inferior without raising question against the superior, so to say.

JENNIFER
Don’t you think this, I mean, it’s the same divide and rule concept that was used by the colonizers that is being reproduced? At what point were you able to give it a name, this is racism. At what point were you able to understand that, I was socialized wrong, for example?

NGOC
And to maybe also add to that question, not just for you personally, but also, you kind of talked about it as well – that this was a shifting moment for the feminist movement in South Korea. So do you feel like there was this rising awareness, as well, of this racism within the feminist ideologies and beliefs and within the feminism in South Korea? And if not, then how can you see this awareness being built within South Korea and your context?

ARAM
Yeah, I think after 2014 / 2015, when these feminist reboots just started and mostly mobilized through online first, then really people think – Oh, we have really common ground, we have common reason to fight for. And then through the issue of the Yemenis and the refugee issue, people realized we are not talking about the feminism we projected, but within us, we have such a diverse understanding of feminisms.

And in Korea, as Young also pointed out, we have a country of migration, but people tend not to see the reality of this. And we also didn’t give a ground and platform for the migrants to talk about their real stories and their real experiences. So people always say, Korea is such a homogenized, one-race country, but it is not actually.

So I think people are not ready to see the stratification between different feminisms, also possible feminisms within incorporating the race in different countries into their discourses. I think we are still in this kind of phase of change. But at this moment, at the center, we confirmed – Okay, we have very different feminisms within our feminist movement.

JENNIFER
While you’re still on the topic of racism, because we saw what happened during the Corona time and how the Asian community, for example here experienced the racism. And then on the other hand, in Asian countries, the Black people are the ones who are being told they’re the cause of the virus. How was your experience in this time of the racism that was propagated to the Asian community here?

ARAM
After Corona, people were all talking about something really different happening to the Asian community. But what I personally experienced was actually, it’s not. I mean, even before Corona, I’ve always felt racism against Asians. Also, I always hear on the street that “ching ching chong” or saying any “bla” that sounds like Asian words towards me. And of course after Corona, it’s more frequent, so to say, and it’s also shifted the topic more related to COVID. But I think this racism against Asians was present already. I think this COVID issue kinda triggered to finally tell Germans that – Oh, there is such racism against Asians, but which also existed. And in that sense, also within the Korean and Yemenis issue, how this became a trigger. Actually there is racism persistent within feminism movement, definitely. But this kind of triggered and brought it to the surface, I think.

JENNIFER
Thank you very much, because we know how hard it is to talk about these issues on racism, how we are affected, and how much it gets into us. That’s the reality. But now I’m more interested to hear on the divisions that were there where the concept of feminism in this time when the Yemeni men were there, that the feminist movement divided itself on this concept of racism. And then we can also kind of bring that shift to white feminism here, which only wants to talk about sexism, but doesn’t want to talk about racism.

YOUNG
The core problem of this incident – the arrival of Yemeni Muslim refugees in South Korea – and also the racist reactions led by so-called radical feminists and all the other stuff… I mean, marginalized groups against marginalized groups – they have common ground. The key lies in how you understand feminism and how you understand your own struggle. How you understand feminism affects completely how you are practicing your feminism, and also struggle as well. We can just switch the word feminism to struggle. So whether it is a refugee, a Yemeni refugee, or a Yemeni male refugee, if you’re against their migration and their settlement, in the name of feminism, then I’ll say your feminism is not my feminism. And your struggle is not my struggle.

JENNIFER
I think now, there is the term that was coined by Kimberly Crenshaw, ‘intersectional feminism.’ And that’s where everybody has a space in this concept of ‘intersectional feminism,’ so that no one feels superior over the others. We all intersect from some point. I think that was very smart of Kimberly Crenshaw… You had another song?

ARAM
This might be a bit abrupt, but this song is kind of like a new generation of protest song, unlike the previous song. It’s actually K-pop. I think it’s already a 10 years old song, but because the lyrics also into the new word, by Girls’ Generation. It’s sung in Ehwa University’s protest against the university’s conspiracy. And this new generation of young feminisms, also feminists, they kind of refuse to use old generations’ protest songs. They want to make their own new way of their new world through the protest. At the same time, this also shows some glimpse of how this is dividing feminism within the feminist discourses, because they really want to focus on their self-development, their position in their life in comparison to the man’s. So you’ll hear it first, and then we can come back.

 

[SONG: Girls’ Generation – 소녀시대 ‘다시 만난 세계 (Into The New World)’]
[AUDIO: Protest song sung by Ehwa Women’s University students 2016 (from 4:00 min)]

 

NGOC
I’m a big, big fan of Kpop. But to also see it from this perspective, it is also political. So I really appreciate it.

JENNIFER
Yeah, maybe to come to a conclusion, what would be your final statements as we come to almost the end of this program? I wish we had more time. There’s a lot we could have discussed. But what would be your closing statements for the program?

ARAM
I think as we also talk a lot about how everyone has their own different ways of understanding feminisms, that it’s not about thinking my feminism is contrary to your feminism. It’s also that we all have to understand where we intersect, and where to find our common understanding of each other – not just in the way of exclusion. That will be the lesson I learned through this Yemeni issue, also living in Germany, seeing all these different feminisms.

YOUNG
What I would love to demonstrate is to be intersectionalist and also to be internationalist. Because the main reason why we picked up this article for this episode, and also why we took this issue very seriously, was that this incident wasn’t just a trigger for many other problems in that country, in my home country, but also from that point, so many young feminists started to think of their situatedness in a geopolitical ring. So they started to reconstruct their own subjectivity in relation to others. That’s why it’s very important, and I hope that we didn’t give all the others the wrong impression that the struggle of South Korean young feminists somehow is not important. It is very important, because real violence is going on there. But let’s not forget that other entanglement is also important.

JENNIFER
It’s very interesting how you put it that we are not belittling the struggle of others, we acknowledge the struggle. And we have very common struggles when it comes to femicide. It’s everywhere, everyone is just being killed because they are women. There are so many commonalities we share. But in these commonalities, let’s also embrace the differences. There is power in the differences. Our strength lies in the differences that we have.

NGOC
Many, many thanks to you, Young and Aram, for the very interesting discussion and for being here. I’m sure that we will continue to have these conversations and we will continue to be in organizing spaces with each other.

ARAM
Thank you.

YOUNG
Thank you so much for having us. And I wanted to say this: Thank you so much for your existence in Germany in Berlin, you both and your struggle. I’m admiring, seriously. Thank you so much.

ARAM  
Also that really motivated me to speak out about my personal experiences and at the same time, try to make common grounds with other women. Thank you.

Folgt in Kürze!