Opinion | Creating a United, and Welcoming, Korea

Unfortunately, there is another major obstacle standing in our way: the striking lack of tolerance extending across the entire peninsula.

Even after North Korean defectors have denounced the regime and embraced life in the South, many South Koreans still refuse to accept them, subjecting escapees to bullying, ostracism and other forms of mistreatment. Partly as a result, separate schools have been established in the South to help young Northerners adjust to their new lives. But even as adults, Northerners are subject to workplace discrimination and social isolation. A 2018 study found that “suicidal thoughts and behaviors” are more common among North Korean defectors than the South Korean population at large.

Unfortunately, South Koreans would likely face the same problems in the North if the situation were reversed. In North Korea, where the average citizen has little interaction with foreigners or exposure to other cultures, racism and xenophobia are ingrained and unabashed — a hostility that reaches to the very top. The regime’s propagandists brazenly referred to former President Barack Obama as a “wicked black monkey” during his second term.

South Koreans can also be hostile to outsiders. The arrival earlier this year of a few hundred Yemeni asylum-seekers on the island of Jeju sparked a fierce backlash, based in part on concerns over crime, jobs and cultural differences. Hundreds of thousands of Southerners signed a petition urging their government to reject the refugees.

South Koreans expressing such sentiments fail to acknowledge that many Koreans were themselves accepted as refugees and adopted by foreigners in the aftermath of the Korean War. (Sadly, members of the Korean diaspora who return to the peninsula today to live and explore their roots are sometimes rejected for not being Korean enough.) Some South Koreans also forget that foreign soldiers fought and died alongside their countrymen during the war. Given this history, and that South Korea is a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, the South has an obligation to embrace those fleeing war and other calamities throughout the world.

To those Koreans who are uncomfortable with the notion of an inclusive society, I say this: If you want a united Korea to be accepted as a member of the international community, this is a reality you must learn to accept. Having more personal interactions with foreigners is a critical first step.

The ancestors who fought for our freedom left us a legacy of sacrifice. We must leave the same legacy for the generations to come, by doing what is necessary to create a united and welcoming Korea — one that all Koreans, as well as all those seeking shelter from foreign conflicts, can call home.

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