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[Herald Interview] Opposition leader against opening up to refugees

Country’s youngest-ever party leader opposes COVID-19 relief funds for foreigners

People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok speaks in an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok speaks in an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Lee Jun-seok, 36, the youngest-ever leader of the nation’s main opposition People Power Party, has been outspoken on a number of sensitive issues since taking office last month. Sitting down with The Korea Herald on Monday, he candidly spoke about hot topics like refugees, immigrants and North.

When asked about the nation’s immigration policies, Lee said that South Korea should accept immigrants who can help the nation’s economy, but should be cautious about refugees.

“For immigration, there should be a purpose,” Lee said in his National Assembly office in Yeouido, Seoul.

“I believe we should appropriately open the door for immigrants who are skilled in technology or who can make investments,” the Harvard graduate said, adding that is the driving force behind the development of the United States.

“But, refugee issues are different,” Lee said. “For instance, when refugees from African countries, whose lifestyle, religion and culture are different than ours, come to Korea, what is their purpose?”

“We should cautiously ponder why (they choose) Korea,” he said.

Citing Yemenis who sought asylum on Jeju Island a few years ago, Lee said he doubted whether they came to Korea to leave Yemen or came here as a sort of immigration.

About 500 people fleeing the war Yemen, with most routes overseas closed off to them, entered Jeju via Malaysia on a visa waiver scheme, before the waiver was ended for Yemenis.

But only two were given refugee status, with about 400 being given less secure humanitarian residence status.

Korea has faced international criticism for its record on asylum. From 2000 to 2017, Korea’s recognition rate of refugees was 3.5 percent, ranking 35th among 37 member countries of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation.

Ministry of Justice figures show that of 71,936 people who applied for refugee status since Korea began accepting asylum seekers in 1994, 1,101 were recognized as refugees, with 2,370 more being granted humanitarian residence permits.

Speaking on disaster relief funds to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, Lee said he does not think foreign nationals should be paid relief funds.

“Korea has many self-employed people and we should help their damage,” he said. “But it is ambiguous what damage foreigners have faced due to the coronavirus,” he said.

The government plans to provide a fifth round of relief funds, but it has not been decided among lawmakers whether the funds should be given to everyone or only the bottom 80 percent income group.

Last year, some foreign residents, such as the spouses of Koreans, were given disaster relief funds from the central government but most did not receive them.

This ignited controversy whether the funds should be provided for foreign nationals, of whom there are around 2 million, including more than 1.5 million long-term residents.

Skeptics argue that the relief should only be given to Koreans as resources are limited and the funds impose a burden on future generations because they are funded with borrowing. Others said foreign nationals should be included to boost domestic demand and because they pay taxes here.

Lee said there was a difference in tax contributions, as Koreans usually pay tax here throughout their lives, while foreigners’ contributions may have been over a short period.

“Disaster relief funds are provided by taxes that Koreans have paid throughout their life cycles,” he said. “I don’t think foreigners have paid taxes throughout their life cycles here.”

Lee also talked about the nation’s North Korea policies, denouncing the Moon Jae-in administration’s current policies, which mainly aim to engage with the regime.

“We have given the North a lot without receiving anything,” he said.

“North Korea has blown up a joint liaison office worth 20 billion won ($17 million) and a government official was killed by North Korean troops in the West Sea last year. Still, we can’t say anything. This is wrong.”

Over the past days, he has publicly and repeatedly argued for the abolition of the Ministry of Unification and the Ministry of Gender Equality, saying, “They are ministries whose lifespans have expired or have no role in the first place.”

Having said that, he believes the two Koreas should be unified -- but by absorbing the North.

“When reunification takes place all of a sudden, there are two options -- absorbing the North or retaining both administrations,” he said, adding that he believes President Moon wants the latter.

In 2017, Moon said he did not want the collapse of North Korea and would not seek reunification by absorption. In 2019, Victor Cha, Korea chairman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said what Moon wants is not reunification but two systems within one country.

That means the countries would combine national policies while maintaining their own characteristics, Lee said.

“I want to ask Moon,” he said. “Is there anything we can positively evaluate among North Korea’s unique characteristics? Are there any better economic, social or judicial systems in the North than what we have?”

“If the comparative advantage is clear, we cannot maintain two systems,” he said.

“That is why it is understandable that the North hates the absorption idea, but the Democratic Party hates it too,” he said, adding that he believes the perspective is strange.


By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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