SPECIAL REPORT – Fleeing discrimination at home, S. Koreans seek asylum abroad [The Hankyoreh / 한겨레]

According to a poll [see below], over 60% of south Korean young people would live in another country if they had the chance.

Why is the Western media not vociferously denouncing south Korea for their citizens seeking refuge abroad, as they ritually do for DPR Korea?

And with the hysteria getting whipped up around Russia before the Winter Olympics, are Russians getting asylum abroad due to anti-LGBT persecution like south Koreans? – Zuo Shou

– Conscientious objectors and sexual minorities leave a country that is still fairly intolerant of difference –

“Things are so bad that people like me are recognized as refugees.” – Lee Ye-da, south Korean LGBT refugee

November 9, 2013

By Park Hyun-jung, Hankyoreh 21 reporter

…Lee, a South Korean national, lives in France as a refugee. His refugee status was recognized by the French Office for Protection of Refugees and Expatriates (OFPRA) two months before his meeting with the Hankyoreh and seven months after he first submitted his application.

■  ‘Traitor to his country’?  

About one year ago, Lee departed from Incheon International Airport, passing through Moscow before making his way to Paris. He left two months before he was scheduled to begin his military service, a national duty for South Korean males. Having decided that his convictions would not permit him to join the armed forces, he spent 700,000 won (US$660) on a one way ticket to Paris. He had no intention of returning to South Korea, he said. His destination, France, is noted for its strong system of social welfare, and he thought that if he was not granted refugee status he might be able to file an appeal. If worse came to worst, he could leave for another country, or maybe hide out in the forest. He is not a member of any particular religious faith or any persecuted sexual orientation. He has never worked with any social activist group.

“I learned about Buddhism in middle school, and I vowed that I would never take another life,” Lee wrote on his refugee application. “The mandatory military service system trains us to kill people, which goes against my convictions. In South Korea, the military service duty is like a rite of passage leading to adulthood. Most people regard it as a ‘sacred duty’. People who have completed it create discrimination between ‘men who have served’ and ‘those who have not’ [including women and disabled persons]. Conscientious objectors in South Korea are stigmatized as ‘traitors to their country’ and ‘people with a criminal record.’ These two labels follow them wherever they go, and they are discriminated against.”

Abandoning his citizenship was not always Lee’s plan. It was two years ago that he began seriously questioning whether or not to serve in the military. At the time, he had never even heard of conscientious objection. But his resistance to joining the military dated back to childhood. He found it impossible to accept that he had to carry a gun when he could not bear to kill even a defenseless insect. He inquired about doing medical instead of combat service. This was when he learned why no alternative system had been created, and who conscientious objectors were.

■ ‘Scared? Of course I was.’

While on the plane to France, he finished a book he had started in Korea. Titled “The Language of Peace I Had to Swallow,” it was written by conscientious objector and peace researcher Im Jae-seong. Lee, who was born in 1991, saw parallels between his own life and the events of that year. His eyes filled with tears- rather than giving him comfort, it only made him feel sorrow.

In April 1991, a Myongji University freshman named Kang Kyung-dae was beaten to death by a plainclothes policeman with a metal pipe. He had been fighting for lower university tuition, and the policeman was part of a team cracking down on protesters. The following May 4, a private first class named Park Seok-jin, a member of the first company of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s first riot squad, left his workplace and issued a statement of conscientious objection, declaring that he could “no longer fight against students and members of the public irrespective of my own will.” The state decided Park was a criminal. He was arrested and charged with violating the Establishment of Riot Police Units Act. Eventually, he was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months in prison suspended for three years.

“All I did was not go into the military, and I became a criminal. All those people, all that work, and nothing’s really changed. . . .”

He left the airport and headed into Paris. After finding a place to stay, he immediately started inquiring about refugee applications. There are a number of groups in Paris that offer assistance. All Lee had at the time was the 500,000 won (US$470) his mother had given him. He sometimes slept out on the street when he couldn’t find a bed. After about five months of waiting, he was finally allowed to stay at a residence for refugee applicants. France forbids applicants from seeking employment, but it does provide support for living expenses.

Meanwhile, Lee’s mother was pleading with him. He could just close his eyes and do the service, and then work afterwards to fix the things that were wrong with it. Sometimes, she would angrily ask him why he would leave his country and family to avoid the military when every other young man just went and did it. “Scared? Of course I was,” Lee said. “My English was far from perfect, and my French was even worse. But I did not want to go into the military. And I did not want my freedom taken away by the military.”

The freedom to not go into the military – is it crazy to dream of not being put behind bars because you refuse to join? Since 2008, the UN Human Rights Council and the European Court of Human Rights have viewed punishment of conscientious objectors as “arbitrary detention.” Oh Jae-chang, an attorney with the law firm Haemaru, said they do so because “they view conscientious objection as being like freedom to migrate, a right that all humans should enjoy.”

“That this kind of arbitrary detention keeps happening is a shame to civilized countries,” Oh said.

This past Oct. 8, another young man declared that he would not be doing his service. Park Jeong-hun, 27, is an activist with Alba Yeondae, a group working on behind of young part-time workers. On the day of his scheduled induction, Park held a press conference in front of Daehan Gate in central Seoul to declare, “The country that I wish to defend is not a barbaric place like this.”

Early this year, fifty conscientious objectors whose guilty verdicts had been upheld by the Supreme Court filed a petition with the UN Human Rights Committee charging the South Korean government with defying international norms and arbitrarily detailing conscientious objectors.

Lee Sang-min, who intends to seek refugee status abroad after graduating from university to avoid his mandatory military service.  

■ Where are South Korea’s refugees?

The idea of applying for refugee status came to Lee from a friend, “Lee Sang-min,” who shared similar concerns.

Sang-min had also resolved not to go into the military. His plan had been to go overseas as soon as he finished university and apply for refugee status. But something happened the year he was to graduate from high school: the Yongsan tragedy of 2009, which saw six people lose their lives when a redevelopment protest turned into an inferno.

“The protesting residents went up there [on the roof] to survive the demolition for redevelopment,” he said. “They were ordinary people living ordinary lives up until the day the state got involved with its project. The state drove them over the cliff, and it was shocking to see the whole thing being blamed on them.”

As he began considering the option of refusing to serve, his first thought was to emigrate. He was looking at the sojourn qualifications when he found out about refugee status. At the time, the media was reporting about a 28-year-old man named Kim Kyung-hwan who had had his status as a refugee recognized in 2009 by Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board. Kim was a conscientious objector who was also homosexual.

From an early age, he seemed to see the country differently from other children. He can remember that day when he was an elementary school student, and his homework assignment was to memorize the pledge to the national flag.

“Are you truly prepared to dedicate your body and mind to the endless glory of the homeland and people?” his father asked him.

Even as a child, he thought, “I might sacrifice a few things, but I don’t know about everything.”

Today, Sang-min’s father tells his son he “can’t bear the thought” of telling him to go into the military. But Sang-min’s father has suggested the prison option, worried about how his son will fare in a strange country. The mother is still having trouble accepting her only son’s decision.

■ Suffering of Korean sexual minorities

Ye-da is not the only South Korean to gain refugee status this year. Last April, “Kim In-su,” a 34-year-old gay man who also refused to enlist, had status granted in Australia. Recently, some transgender individuals have also had refugee status granted. All adamantly refused to give any identifying information – going so far as to ask that their current country of residence not be listed.

“It looks like the countries took a number of factors into account in granting refugee status,” said Ryu Min-hee, an attorney with the group Korean Society of Law and Policy on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which submitted an opinion on the current situation in South Korea during the review process. “This includes the very strict conditions for gender reassignment, the difficulty finding employment when your appearance doesn‘t match the gender listed on your identification, the likelihood of financial problems because insurance does not cover gender reassignment surgery – which can be very costly – and the lack of any legal recourse for LGBT individuals, such as anti-discrimination or hate crimes legislation.”

At the moment, no laws exist that could allow transgender individuals to change their legal gender. Rulings were made by individual courts after a 2006 Supreme Court precedent allowing such a change. In most cases, the courts have followed the guidelines for handling “gender modification permit requests for transgender individuals” as drafted by the Supreme Court (Registration of Family Relationship regulation No. 346). According to those guidelines, one of the conditions for granting a permit is that an individual must have “external sexual organs opposite to those of his/her biological sex.”

In 2008, the National Human Rights Commission submitted a recommendation to the Chief Justice asking that the regulation be amended, claiming it “stands to violate human rights by demanding that individuals who have already taken medical measures for gender reassignment, including hormonal treatments, go so far as to have plastic surgery on their genitalia.”

LGBT individuals were granted refugee status that year as well. In Australia, the Refugee Review Tribunal gave refugee status to a gay South Korean man with transgender identification. In its ruling, it described South Korea as a conservative country where homosexuality was not illegal and LGBT individuals enjoyed some protections from discrimination, but where gay marriage was not permitted and coming out was difficult.

Five years have passed since then.

■ Emigrants are actually refugees

As the years pass without change, they seem to throw cold water on any hopes that South Korean society might change.

“I know that things don’t change easily, but I want to live my life fighting,” said Ye-da. “But they drive you over the edge, without any kind of compromise. What drove me away was the fact that something that other people look at as ‘no big deal’ was driving me over the edge.”

Sang-min offered a slightly more realist perspective. “Will our country ever become a place where people help each other and build up welfare?” he asked. “It’ll change, a bit at a time, but history shoes that it takes something like a century or two. So not much is going to change while I’m around. I want to go somewhere where I can be free and live a self-sufficient life as a farmer.”

A few people who are not conscientious objectors or LGBT individuals have left or hope to leave. Between Sept. 16 and 23, the Hankyoreh and Dooit Survey polled 7,707 people in their teens and older on whether they wanted to live in another country if they had a chance. Fully 60.8% of respondents said “yes,” nearly three times as many as the 22.7% who said “no.” This raises the question: how many of the roughly 15,000 suicides in the country each year are ones who saw no shred of hope?

“In the case of gay people, it’s not refugee status, but I’ve heard of people making families and settling down in countries like the Netherlands where gay marriage is legal,” said Im Tae-hoon, director of the Center for Military Human Rights.

“Parents with developmentally disabled children leave for Canada, which has a better support system,” Im added.
■ ‘You don’t need to hide my face or my name’ 

“Words and Bow” author Hong Se-hwa also lived as a refugee in France after receiving political asylum.

“Time passed, but nothing changed – I was still someone who thought in Korean,” Hong recalled. “My children grew up in a country they didn‘t choose because of their father, and they ended up thinking in French. So when I was finally able to return to Korea, I went back, but they had to stay behind.”

It seemed almost certain that Lee Ye-da would insist on anonymity, so it was a surprise when he said, “You don’t need to hide my face or my name.” He did apologize to his family, and he worried about the scathing criticism that was sure to head his way.

“You see a lot of kids like me in Korea,” he said. “Things are so bad that people like me are recognized as refugees in other countries. They wonder if even one person will come out and say, ‘I feel the same way.’ They know they can’t change things by themselves, but they believe in creating the possibility of change…”

Excerpted; full article link: http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/610223.html

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