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[Feature] Colombian's police debacle resonates with expats

When Leo Mendoza decided to go shopping with his wife on March 30, he did not imagine that it would lead to one of the most hurtful experiences in his 16-year stay in Korea, all because he wanted to save a child’s life.

As they spotted a Korean boy about to be hit by a car in the parking lot, his Korean wife Shin Jin-young instinctively screamed to stop the vehicle, which prevented an accident.

The child’s grandparents, who were not paying attention when this happened, started to yell at Mendoza and his wife for startling the boy. The incident soon turned into a quarrel involving racist slurs and physical confrontation.

Leo Mendoza is knocked down to the ground by a Korean man at a shopping mall parking lot in Busan on March 30. (Leo Mendoza)
Leo Mendoza is knocked down to the ground by a Korean man at a shopping mall parking lot in Busan on March 30. (Leo Mendoza)

“I called the police. I expected them to prevent the man from further insulting and attacking me and my wife,” the 44-year-old Busan resident told The Korea Herald. “But they allowed the verbal abuse to continue. This part was the most hurtful to me and my wife.”

The Korean man even called him “a Polish son of bitch” in front of police officers, but they didn’t do anything, Shin said.

After learning that Mendoza was from Colombia, the man said, “Colombia? It is a lower quality country than Poland. Colombian son of bitch,’” she said. “I was also called a bitch numerous times.”

The police’s indifference to the couple being subject to racist remarks and swear words and their unwillingness to handle the case continued throughout the investigation process, Mendoza said.

“The senior officer kept telling us to go home and not to waste time. The officer tried to encourage us to drop the case. He even said, ‘I don’t believe that you were pushed down. You are so fat!” he said.

“The entire time at the police station was horrifying.”

The Korean man, whose identity is withheld and couldn’t be reached for comment, claims that he was the one assaulted, according to an official at the Busan Yonje Police Station. Both men have been booked and the investigation is still underway, he said.

“Our police officers tried to stop him from making racist remarks seven to eight times. But we cannot forcibly shut his mouth. We should respect both sides,” the officer said, in response to Mendoza’s claim that police showed no willingness to stop racist slurs.

After Mendoza shared his experience publicly, which received attention from the expat community here, the Busan Metropolitan Police Agency said it had been a misunderstanding caused by cultural differences.

“In Korean culture, we try to appease each side and help them reconcile before things get inconvenient for both sides,” an official from Busan Metropolitan Police Agency said. “Busan police will be more careful and better respond to cases involving foreigners from now on.”

Local experts said cultural differences do exist in the way police handle complaints.

South Korean police is known to shun active intervention in “trivial” offenses, often encouraging involved parties to settle. Many citizens, too, expect the police to mediate, rather than pursue their case as a real crime when they report it, they said.

(Screen captured from Facebook)
(Screen captured from Facebook)

Nevertheless, when Mendoza shared his story on his Facebook page, warning that South Korean police “never side with a foreigner against a fellow Korean,” many expats sympathized with him.

Some shared their own memories of being “mistreated” by police or discriminated against in Korea only because they are foreigners.

Riza Yomey, a university student from the Philippines who has lived in Korea for seven years, also said she could not rely on Korean police.

In 2015, she said she got into an argument with a Korean owner of a food stall in Seoul over payment for food she purchased. After the man called her “liar” and publicly humiliated her, she headed to the police station to report the man.

“Police advised me to forget about it. The senior policeman even looked irritated that we would not let it go. They told us to just give up because it will get complicated,” she said. “That experience made me realize that police don’t care about foreigners.”

“I would never report a crime or ask for help from the police again. I don’t expect them to help a foreigner like me. They always side with Koreans,” she said.

A US national, who has lived in South Korea for 10 years, said he now considers moving back to his country because of the racism and xenophobia he and his family have suffered here.

“It is not just from the police. Although Korea has made headway, the idea of Korea exceptionalism is still alive and well,” said the man, who asked not to be named.

“In everyday life, there are school children commenting at my 3-year-old son’s looks, people coming up to my wife on the street and saying ‘oh the babies’ dad is a foreigner right?’” he said.

“I’ve been spit at, been called a dirty foreigner more times than I can count.”

South Korea, one of the most homogenous countries in Asia, lags behind in international standards in terms of racism and diversity, experts say. There is still no law banning discrimination based on race, religion or sexuality.

The country has seen a notable rise in the number of multicultural families only in the past decade. As of the end of January, 1.52 million foreign nationals reside in Korea, about 3 percent of the entire population of 52 million.

According to a 2015 survey on 4,000 adults by the Ministry of Gender and Family Affairs, 25.7 percent of the respondents said that they didn’t want people of different races as neighbors.

In his visit to South Korea in 2014, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on racism, Mutuma Ruteere, urged South Korea to enact an antidiscrimination law to curb racism and xenophobia, given the country’s history of ethnic and cultural homogeneity.

Efforts to enact a bill aimed at rooting out discrimination on such grounds as gender, disability, age, race, marital status and religion have all failed for the past decade, in the face of fierce resistance from conservative and Christian groups opposing equal rights for sexual minorities.

Koreans in general seem to have a relatively low understanding of racial issues, although the country has joined the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1978, a human rights campaigner said.

“So law enforcement agencies and government officials should have a better understanding of human rights and racism than anyone else to curb racial discrimination in the country,” said Yang Eun-sun, public engagement manager at the Korea office of Amnesty International. “There should be more education, systems and domestic law to raise awareness.”

Mendoza agreed with Yang.

“No country can stop racism and hate. But every country can make a legal system that protects the victims of racism and hate,” he said.

The chief of the Yonje Police Station later called Mendoza and offered an apology, which Mendoza accepted and described as “understanding and professional."

By Ock Hyun-ju (