Foreigners fear for safety in South Korea

The US embassy warns American citizens to stay away from certain parts of the capital Seoul as a homegrown campaign urges foreigners to leave…

Demonstrations against foreigners are planned and an online petition to keep foreigners out of the Republic of Korea has already received thousands of signatures.
Many foreigners are worried, some have already left. And all this because of a website?

The site in question was ostensibly set up to help Western English teachers find jobs. Featured on the site was a forum dedicated to Seoul’s social life.

The forum also organised parties where Westerners and local girls drank, danced and flirted.

Koreans got wind of the site, hacked it, and brought it down.

Many thought nothing of it.

However in the last few weeks, things have quickly escalated.

A local Yahoo-style portal named Daum set up a petition to rid South Korea of ‘low-grade Westerners’.

Demonstrations are planned and activists are encouraged to confront Western men who are seen with Korean women.

Many foreigners are becoming increasingly worried. Some have already left.

The US embassy in Korea has issued a warning urging US citizens to avoid visiting certain parts of Seoul due to fears of reprisals.

South Korea is in danger of becoming the most xenophobic and reactionary society in democratic Asia.

This contrasts deeply with the stated aim of the Roh administration to become the ‘hub’ of North East Asia – a link between China and the Pacific Rim.

Much of the xenophobia, like in many countries, is down to fear and ignorance.

Many Koreans point to their history, a constant whirlwind of invasions and subjugation by their powerful neighbours, as a reason for being mistrustful of foreigners.

Indeed anti-Japanese sentiment still runs deep, especially amongst the older generation.

Younger people have long had a distrust for the US military stationed on the peninsula.

Around Seoul’s main university district, large signs forbidding GI’s from entering are posted above the entrances to bars and clubs.

Many Westerners, fearful of being mistaken for a soldier, wear their national flags on their backpacks.

In the past, that was usually enough to avoid a confrontation. But that was when US soldiers, not foreign English teachers, were the target.

That has all changed now.

For many foreigners in South Korea, the atmosphere on the peninsula at the moment is eerily reminiscent of 2002 when two Korean school girls were run over by an American military APC.

When the two soldiers in the vehicle were tried in a US military court, under the terms of the SOFA agreement, there was an outcry with demonstrations occurring across the country.

Occasional demonstrations still occur outside US installations and Korean riot police are permanently stationed outside all of the 41 US military bases in the country.

Now however, the focus is not on the military but on the thousands of English teachers working all over Korea.

But why is such tangible hatred being directed towards teachers?

Part of the answer lies in the media.

A quick scan of the local dailies will reveal a media, and a culture, that is becoming more nationalistic by the day.

Civic groups, local government, and on and off-line communities react fast to any perceived sleight on Korea.

The BBC car show Top Gear received criticism from Korean manufacturing groups after lampooning Korean cars as ‘fridge like’ in their design.

The popular US TV show Los’ was also heavily criticised here, accused of perpetrating negative stereotypes of Korean men.

Even Oprah Winfrey couldn’t escape criticism after she accused Korean women of being obsessed with plastic surgery.

When incidents like this happen, hordes of angry young ‘netizens’ get to work, calling for boycotts, backlashes and action.

So what does this all mean for South Korea? The number of non-Asian visitors to South Korea is dropping. So too are the amount of businesses investing in South Korea.

That is as much due to the weakened currency as it is to South Korea’s less-than-welcoming reputation.

But with xenophobia on the rise, things do not bode well for the future. Today’s 20-something English teacher is tomorrow’s business man or investor.

One European embassy official spoke of how Korea had “no chance” of emulating the regional powerhouses of Hong Kong or Singapore in terms of attracting foreign investment.

And his explanation came in the form of a wry and blunt question. “Who in their right mind would want to live here?”

There are many now who are asking the same question.