Cultures of Respect Episode 15August 26, 2021

15. Pushing back against xenophobia in South Korea

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

South Korea’s human rights record looks quite good until you discover what life is like for minorities.  LGBTQI persons, people of minority faiths and foreigners have a tough time, and it’s getting tougher.  Human rights lawyer Pillkyu Hwang is the director of the GongGam Human Rights Law Foundation, and works with other lawyers and activists to uphold and defend minority rights, using litigation, advocacy, and public engagement. He talks about the social, economic and political backdrop to exclusion and the strategies he and others are using to push back. 

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The Interview

‘This issue of racism and intolerance is getting worse’

The arrival of 500 Yemeni refugees on Korea’s Jeju Island in 2018 triggered a surge of anti-foreigner sentiment, and tens of thousands of petitioners demanded that government “protect” Koreans from the asylum-seekers.  For human rights activists the challenge goes beyond winning cases in court – they need to reckon with a society that is profoundly comfortable with homogeneity and correspondingly uneasy with difference. 

The Coda

Finding inner calm by swimming in turbulent waters

When Mike Davis, CEO of Global Witness, wants to take a break from calling out states’ harm to the environment or corporate corruption, he dons a wetsuit and heads out into the waves. 


AA: Hey, I’m Akwe Amosu and this is Strength and Solidarity.   

Welcome to our podcast about the ideas driving – and disrupting – human rights movements around the world.  Coming up: 

  • Strategies for fighting xenophobia in South Korea 
  • And in the Coda: finding inner calm by swimming in rough seas 


AA: Check out South Korea’s human rights record and there are a couple of things to cheer about and a scorecard which, if not exemplary, is better than average. As Human Rights Watch noted in its 2021 report, Korea is a democracy and it respects most political, civil and socio-economic rights – a huge advance on its 30-plus years of authoritarian rule up to the mid-90s.  According to the Human Rights Measurement Initiative, the country scores pretty well on safety from abuse by the state, and although there’s been some slippage in freedom of assembly and association, the record on other freedoms is strong. Until, that is, you come to the treatment of minorities.  LGBTQI people suffer discrimination. So too do people of minority faiths.  And foreigners – migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers – suffer particular exclusion, in social attitudes and in access to education, health, housing and decent work.  This sharp contrast is striking, so I sought out one of the country’s longest serving human rights lawyers for an explanation.  Pillkyu Hwang is the director of the GongGam Human Rights Law Foundation, founded in 2004 and the first public interest law organisation in Korea. It’s played a prominent role in crafting foundational legislation around disability and treatment of refugees and retains some very loyal support – it is funded by contributions from small donors.  I asked Pillkyu whether we should see the treatment of minorities as a kind of front line for human rights in Korea? 

PKH: Yeah. I mean, there has been this issue of racial discrimination, racism, xenophobia, intolerance, but it’s getting worse. Uh, there have been this rise of hate speech, incitement to racial hatred. And, we have this idea of racial superiority and also all these racist stereotypes expressed in the media, including the internet and social media. One is kind of hatred against the other religions, expressed by the conservative protestant churches. And, um, I mean the situation of unemployment and under- employment in the Korean society, is a kind of basis of this antipathy against migrant workers. And yeah, I mean it’s a kind of international society, but we are still kind of not used to, you know, living with foreigners, you know, people without nationalities. And so people have some kind of fear and if someone tell them that, well they are sex offenders or they’re terrorists, uh, people are very susceptible, you know, to these kind of arguments.

AA: You had this, um, case recently of 500 Yemeni refugees arriving.  And maybe you could just say something about what happened there and, and how people responded to the idea of having refugees, people seeking asylum, arrive from Yemen. 

PKH: So, I think it was 2018 and just 500 you know – not 5 million or, you know, 500,000, but just 500 – Yemeni asylum seekers arrived in the Jeju island. But that number was large compared to the number that arrived before. And there was a strong movement against refugees, with all these Jeju people having fear against refugees and there was this strong movement and 700,000 people signed a petition, demanding abolishing the Refugee Act and withdrawing from the Refugee Convention. And, um, at that time, the slogan was, um, “nationals first”. We have this rule that if you have certain number of, uh, petition signatures to the government, the government should respond. And so, after few months, the government made an announcement saying that they will revise the law. And at the same time saying the protection of nationals first.  They thought this slogan “protection of nationals first” was a kind of compromise, between different ideas and different perspectives but I think the protection of nationals first was clearly xenophobic comment.

AA: As a human rights lawyer, as someone who has done a lot of work around protection of minorities and migrants and refugees, what does that do to your room for maneuver? I’m just curious about how you start to build a strategy to defend people who need asylum or have nowhere else to go. When you know, that that’s the context in which you are having to win such a battle. 

PHK: I mean, Korea enacted the first, independent refugee act in Asia. And when I first started my work on refugees, I was the only lawyer representing refugee cases and now we have hundreds of lawyers representing refugee cases. And I mean, things have changed for the better in many aspects. But what I see is “what was the real situation?” and “what would be the future?” and if we see that aspect, I mean, I see the very negative aspects. Every work I do there have been a lot of changes and improvements, but, uh, is it really going for the better and, uh, uh, no, no retreat or going back? Uh, I think many areas has danger of going back and, um, yeah,

AA:  That’s what worries you is regression? 

PKH: Right.  Well, my, you know, tools or, strategy’s not that different from other work. I mean, basically I’m, I’m trying to adopt this holistic approach to advocacy, you know, doing different things at the same time. For example, for refugee issues, uh, we’ve done law reform and litigation at the same time. We did a lot of a UN advocacy and we did comparative legal research, and various public awareness campaigns and work with the media and so on. So basically, we do a lot of work but we try to kind of position different tactics with different kind of weight, but utilizing or mobilizing all these different tactics as much as possible.

AA: And, looking around the world, this is not an unusual picture. We’re seeing, a sort of waning willingness to, receive people, and look after them if they’re refugees or seeking asylum, we’re seeing a rise in willingness to be overtly hostile to difference. And I don’t know, I wonder whether you connect what you’re describing to a global shift, or whether this is really a homegrown question. You’ve talked about it being a pretty homogeneous society. There’s not a big population of diverse groups in Korea. So, I just wonder how, how we should understand it.  

PKH: Well, at first, I thought it was very unique in Korea because, uh, Korea’s society, they do emphasize this, the homogeneity of their national origin and, um, we, we kind of use terms like “pure blood” describing Korean nationals. And so I thought I felt it was very kind of unique to Korea, but I realized that it’s a kind of a universal phenomenon and even though they take different forms of different kind of aspects, we share the same problem all around the world. And that’s why we are trying to, you know, not just rely on international standards or international human rights systems, but we, we try to connect to other people in other countries and other advocates in other countries to, you know, cooperate and collaborate.

AA: Yeah. Because I think, you know, you just gave a list of tools that you’re using. But in a sense, I think what you’re describing, the situation you’re describing needs a bigger scale of intervention.  You and communication strategists and, and civil society advocates can do this work, but I don’t know whether it needs a deeper cultural shift to turn the tide or whether your instinct is just a stick to using the tools that you’ve gotten and hope that the pendulum swings back. 

PKH: Yeah. I mean, when we talk about the rule of law, the first step is like the change of the law. And the second step is change of institution and the final step is change of perception. So, I think it’s not just, you know, changing the law or winning at litigation, it’s basically the change in the culture and changing the perception of the people. And so that’s why we have to collaborate. I mean, it cannot be done in a certain, just one country, I mean the whole world should, you know, towards some kind of different perceptions and ideas.

AA: One thing that you’re seeing in different parts of the world is, and in your region too, is quite a big generational shift. You’re seeing young people mobilizing on, I don’t know whether I should say a progressive agenda, but an agenda that’s much more open-minded and, um, uh forward-looking than their parents. And I wonder whether that’s also true in Korea? Are you seeing a similar kind of shift of people who are questioning the kind of conservative values of the previous generation? 

PKH: Well I see your point, but different generations have their own strong points and weak points. And as you said, I mean, every new generation has some progressive component. But at the same time, the economic situation or the social situation is, not that good. I mean it’s worse than, the situation of this older generation, so younger generation, they tend to criticize the older generation, you know, ruining this economy. And, they are really into this issue of fairness and equality. So maybe that’s why many kinds of young people are against migrants, because know, they simply think that migrant workers are just stealing their jobs and, you know, ruining the economy and, you know, ruining the national interest. So, I mean, every generation has different aspects and we should you know, encourage to have this, positive aspects of these different generations, um, you know, have more power and more impact.

AA: Well, I mean, this may be just a completely trivial observation, but I think for a lot of us seeing that mega giant pop group BTS give a $1 million donation to the Black Lives Matter movement last year was, yeah, it was a kind of arresting moment of just, “what’s happening there? Who are they speaking to?”  Is this just the group’s own feeling about, what was happening in the US at that time, or is there something that they’re responding to in young Korean society that they want to affirm? Maybe that’s an outsider with some wishful thinking, but what, what did you make of that? 

PKH: Well Um, I don’t see as an issue of a generation, but it’s an issue of people who have some influence, how they should act or how should they make an impact on society. And I think, BTS, you know, doing that kind of donation had some kind of implication on other people’s attitude, especially Korean young people. And, uh, I think we should expect the kind of attitude or, uh, activities from the government and media.

AA: Well, I suppose the other thing that I wanted to ask you about, in terms of public response or shifting… attitudes: I gather from things you’ve told me before that you have a pretty large number of donors – ordinary citizens who make relatively small donations, to GongGam. I did also read that that number has more than doubled in the past decade and I wondered if you’d say something about that. What is that telling you about a voice in society that wants you to do the work you’re doing? 

PKH: Well, I think that there are two aspects to that. One is, I mean, we don’t have many human rights lawyers or public interest lawyers like the US, and, when we first started our work we were the, the only nonprofit, full-time public interest lawyers group. And so I think people were curious about, our situation and, they were really kind of surprised to see this, you know, lawyers working full time, you know, non-profit, you know, for human rights and that at first that helped us to get some donors and some supporters. But later on actually our work is covered by the media, at least some, you know, few times a month. And, uh, people see the results of our work, you know, not all people but some people really kind of sympathize with our work and empathize with our work. So they are ready to do something for us and with us, that’s what I think.

AA: Do you also get the kind of hate speech and attacks that you were describing being thrown at refugees and migrants and foreigners? Do you also get those thrown at you for defending them? 

PKH: Yeah, of course. I mean, we are very often criticized or denounced by the xenophobic movement as, traitors ruining the national interest, or even, I mean, I cannot understand these terms but imperialist exporting disruptive foreigners and foreign culture. But, at least so far, we are not, you know, at serious risk. And, uh, we, we can bear with it.

AA: One thing I’ve seen you quoted as saying is that you don’t think that it’s important to focus narrowly on the detail of cases in order to defend rights in Korea. You’re quoted saying “it’s important to listen to the stories.” What are you getting at there? 

PKH: I mean, sometimes human rights work is for human stories and it’s an issue of humans. But sometimes, if you are really behind in the work and you have really too much work, sometimes you are dealing with not human or people’s rights, but you are just dealing with rights cases. And, sometimes I feel really bad because, uh, I’m not looking at people. I’m just looking at cases but I mean, all this work is for people. I mean, so their stories is important. It’s important to hear what they have to say. And that will be the start of my work and the end of my work. And that, that’s the thing that, you know, I always trying to emphasize to myself and to others.

AA: I’m asking myself as I listen to you, what would make the environment around you, more accepting of a human rights frame that is not defined by identity? What changes the mind of a population that is quite inward-looking that doesn’t have a very clear tradition of commitment to rights or commitment to inclusion?  

PKH: Yeah, actually I was really curious about the situation of LGBTI in the US, because I know that some decades ago there was strong homophobia, and after just a few decades things have changed. So I really kind of tried to understand what really kind of caused this change. And, I read a lot of academic articles and all these different tactics for strategics used by different groups. But at the end, my conclusion was that people realized that the LGBTI are their friends, you know, the people just beside you, people who you know about! So that changed the situation. And that’s what I understand the situation in Korea. I mean, even in Jeju island, at first some Catholic churches, they distributed some clothes to asylum seekers.  At first, these church people, they tried not to get close to these refugees and just put some clothes, you know, far from them and, “Okay, you can take them.”  And then after few months they have some connections and contacts and they are saying, “Come closer, come closer. I can give you some more clothes!” I mean, things have changed. I mean, if you have some contact, if you have some relationship and if you have chance to see your people and your people’s story, I mean, that’s the way to change things.

AA: Of course, to build that kind of empathy, it’s not really about, you know, stories in the newspaper from what you’ve just said, and personally, in my own belief, it has to happen on a person-to-person basis. That’s how that happens.  

PKH: Right.

AA:  What is the civil society capacity to make that happen? 

PKH: (Laugh) Well yeah, I mean when we do our work, we try to be inclusive. I mean, not just people with the same ideology or same perspective, but, uh, I think it’s always, uh, do your work including, people’s different perspective to make them understand the situation, least some of the situation. And, that’s what we do when we try to get, you know, donors and supporters. We, we try to persuade them even if you don’t agree with all our work. I mean, if some of our work you agree with, you can support us. And that’s the approach that I think that we should take. And we have to expand, I mean, we have to have broader network or broader supporters and allies to, to change the situation.

AA: So when you are mobilizing to get donors, small donors, you’re seeing that partly as a strategy for building a constituency for rights and for the community to shift, it’s not just about getting money so that you can keep GongGam going. 

PKH: Yeah, definitely. I mean, for example, some years ago we went to law schools or some institutions where these pre-lawyers are being trained. And our idea was, well, maybe we cannot get a single penny from them, but at least we can have them have a chance to be exposed to this kind of work and this kind of lawyers. And I mean that helps to have even future connections and expand our advocacy work, and yeah.

AA: Can I just ask a little bit about you personally? Why do you personally want to do this work? You’re a professor with international human rights law focus, but you’ve also been with GongGam since – If I’m right – the start of your career. And you’re now it’s director, it’s clearly a matter of passion for you. What makes this work important for you to do? 

PKH: Well, uh, my simple answer is, um, I just feel like it (laugh) but I mean, I, I strongly believe that a society is defined by what it excludes and I have lived in other countries from childhood. And I have learned that if we live closely together, race, nationality, or religion cannot be an issue at all. And, um, I’m really happy to be, and love my work as a human rights defender and, um, uh, especially migrants and refugees. Most of cases, they do not have political representation and almost always suffer from their unstable status. And that, that makes them the vulnerable among the vulnerables. And, basically I think human rights work is pursuing the rights of the vulnerable among the vulnerables. And, uh, yeah, so I’m really happy with my work. And, um, my, my focus,

AA: Okay. Thank you so much Pillkyu  

PKH: Thank you

AA: Pillkyu Hwang is the executive director of GongGam Human Rights Law Foundation, as well as teaching law as Seoul National University Law School.  You can find a transcript of our conversation and suggestions for further reading on our website, strength-and-solidarity–dot-org. 

AA: For our “Coda”, we usually ask someone active in the Human Rights field to share something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do. We’re stretching the brief a little bit this time – we’re going to hear from someone about how he disconnects from work. Mike Davis is the CEO of Global Witness, the campaigning and investigative organization that calls out corporate and state harm to the environment.  When Mike wants to switch off, he goes swimming.  

MD: I got into wild swimming as it’s sometimes known, or open water swimming, because it’s a tradition in my family. My mom’s an excellent swimmer, including in the sea. Where she grew up on the isle of man, which is a obscure tax haven island between mainland Britain and the island of Ireland. And then my grandmother would swim in the sea every day. And so this is something I’ve always grown up with. When I was in my early forties, I came back into this idea of a project I’d had for a long time that I’d like to try to swim around this island that my mother’s from – the Isle of Man. So that was the basis for me getting much more into open water swimming, swimming in the sea, and using a sabbatical month to try to undertake this swim around this island – which I did a couple of years ago.

MD: It is a transcendent experience really, you’re taking yourself out of your daily ambit, placing yourself in an alien environment. Putting oneself at the mercy of that immense physical kinetic force is part of the appeal, that it is a thrill. Obviously it’s a challenge. When you’re swimming, if you’re doing front crawl, your head is basically under the water, and then if you’ve got waves crashing over you or pushing back against, you really have the sense that you’re in it. And sometimes you’re being pushed down under the water. And that could be just very frightening and traumatizing, but if you can reach a point of almost reconciliation with that idea, it’s actually quite satisfying too. You are being buffeted about, but you can actually be quite comfortable in your own little space within that and, and get a strange enjoyment from it I find. It feels quite peaceful, actually, even if you’re in quite a rough sea, you’re a bit like a sort of an insect to a bit of debris stuff to the surface film. So once you get used to the idea of perhaps being pushed around a bit, or even battered by some waves, you can actually find this quite tranquil space there. It’s like, oh yeah, I’m here. And I’m actually not going to sink.

MD: I think swimming does give you this sense of, of, of weightlessness – being immersed and having, uh, an experience which can be meditative where the meditation is, is somehow bound up with the movement. And I definitely experienced that in a couple of ways. I mean, if you were in a flat calm body of water and you’re swimming well, there is a sort of meditative motion about it.

MD: There is a connection between open water swimming and my work. And I think it’s that it is a way of getting quite quickly, if you’re in the right place, fully immersed quite literally into the natural environment. You’ll see fish. You’ll see things you might not want to see like jellyfish. You may well see and interact with seals, um, possibly even dolphins. So that is rather wonderful. And then there’s the disconnect and the opportunity to escape from work by just going off and doing something which feels physiologically and psychologically in some ways, very different – stretching the body instead of the mind. And that’s a pretty good switch off from, from work. And I, I valued that because I need those switch off times.

MD: As campaigners, uh, activists or people working on social justice issues, the dedication to the cause comes with a shooing (eschewing?) of the need to be more rounded, invest time in other things, or just frankly, simply have a rest. And I don’t think that’s terribly healthy, not for individuals, but I don’t think it’s that healthy for organizations either.

AA: Thanks and much respect to Mike Davis for those intrepid adventures in freezing cold water. 

AA: And that wraps up episode 15 of Strength and Solidarity… thanks for listening! We’re nearing the end of Season Two but there’s still time to tell other people about us!  For anyone just discovering this podcast, we have a treasure trove of past interviews on the mechanics and tactics being used in human rights movements all over the world, and in the Coda – one of my favourite parts of the podcast – many brief but wonderful windows into the life and work of activists. If you liked what we’re producing, please pass the word.  We always welcome your feedback and suggestions … Send us emails! The address is  Thanks to Peter Coccoma, our producer. I’m Akwe Amosu. Until next time.