Paradise Lost (long)

When we stand back and take a look around the world of today, it is easily noticeable that many countries have an expansive history of supporting migrants and refugees, and in many cases, they go onto enrich the society, whether we go back 5, 10 or more than 100 years. The people, fleeing violence and persecution are often escaping wars they had no choice in and are now hoping to try and go to ‘safe havens’, where they can try and live in places that stand as beacons of hope and freedom to the world. There are of course some who deny these facts and there are others who embrace it, but one thing for sure is that we are all members of one species no matter our skin colour or background, the human race.

What we have been witnessing for some time is a growing negative narrative towards immigrants and refugees, in particular, Muslims and people from the Middle East, coming into ‘our’ countries in search of hope and perhaps a faint chance at finding something we all want to call paradise. But I assure you the paradise they are searching for is not what we would consider one.

Paradise can often be associated with a place of exceptional happiness and delight, and I am sure every day each one of us at some point during the day scrolls through their Instagram feed searching for the perfect vacation spot, and our own piece of paradise, where we can escape from all our troubles and the realities that surround us. When we are sitting there in search of this place and our perfect happiness, I am sure we won’t generally be drawn towards South Korea and the small island of Jeju to its south. But for 549 people, it is currently being considered somewhat of a paradise in comparison to what they left behind.

Neil and M discussing the refugee issue on Jeju. Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018

Neil and M discussing the refugee issue on Jeju. Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018

The Yemeni refugee issue on the island has not had that much positive media attention in the last few months, and very rarely have we heard the stories of the refugees, who are currently awaiting an answer about their status from the Korean government. Since their arrival, between April and May 2018, it seems every time the issue gets some air space, it is very negative, or we just see the Korean people protesting for their expulsion. After spending some time talking with them when I visited Jeju recently it became apparent that coming to Korea was the only option they had, and I am without doubt they never thought they would be living here in 2018. If it wasn’t for direct flights and visa-free access, which was suddenly then canceled in June after the influx of 550, I believe they would be home with their families, if it wasn’t for one somewhat small problem.

Of course, 549 may not sound like a big number in comparison to the amount of Syrian and other middle eastern refugees that travel through Turkey into Europe each year, with 198 thousand applicants registered in 2017, with Germany accounting for 31% of all first-time applicants in the EU-28. It was followed by Italy (127 thousand, or 20%), France (91 thousand, or 14%), Greece (57 thousand, or 9%), the United Kingdom (33 thousand, or 5%) and Spain (30 thousand, or 5%).

So, when just 550 Yemen refugees starting entering Jeju, apparently it was enough for South Koreans to take notice. In fact, it was enough for a Blue House (governmental) petition, that has now been signed by more than 700,000 people asking the Moon administration to expel them from the island. This, in my opinion, truly shows a poor mentality and a complete lack of awareness towards an issue, I am sure many Korean, if not foreigners as well, fail to understand, or perhaps don’t want to understand.

What we have witnessed over the last few weeks and months, is hundreds of Koreans taking to the streets of Seoul protesting, calling them “fake refugees” and accusing the Yemenis of being economic migrants. Online forums for mothers on Jeju that usually discuss pram reviews or the best preschool have turned overwhelmingly political in recent months.

South Koreans protesting against the refugees. Taken from News article by the South China Morning Post -

South Koreans protesting against the refugees. Taken from News article by the South China Morning Post -

And after visiting Jeju with a fellow director, in August, we spent some time talking with many of the locals, who don't really seem to be too bothered by the refugees being there.

Sitting in a small coffee shop in Jeju city we start discussing the refugee issue with a local resident who has lived on the island his entire life. He tells us, “Before talking to other people about the situation I felt a little negative towards them but now I have come to understand their situation a little more and I don’t really see any problem with them being here. Korean people tend to have this fear about things they don’t understand and are often unwilling, or open-minded to change the fear into understanding. I think another big problem is the media and the somewhat negative information they show about the refugees. How can people understand another’s situation without discussion. I hope we can resolve this situation in the best way for everybody who is involved, especially people living in Jeju and the Yemen refugees”.

Yemen refugees searching for paradise but struggling to find a place to call home

Since arriving here the refugees have taken various art classes, cultural classes and language programmes to try to integrate themselves and some of the local residents working with them have grown very fond of them.

“...whenever I meet you I feel so happy. You are the person who makes people enjoy the moments with you. Thank you for coming here and being my friend”, writes a young girl who attended an art workshop with several of the Yemenis when they first arrived. This image itself paints a completely different story to what we are seeing in the mainstream and local media.

Photo supplied by 'M', a Yemeni refugee currently residing on Jeju island.

Photo supplied by 'M', a Yemeni refugee currently residing on Jeju island.

I wonder why we are not really seeing the stories of the refugees within the media and why the media is portraying them in such a negative light when they do. And when we look through the newspapers and online content about the issue we can see that others have not been so welcoming, “I am absolutely against having refugees,” one woman said.


Some also mentioned religion as a reason, “I really hate the thought of people with the religion of Islam living on Jeju in a large number”, and others point to the refugee crisis in Europe, and hope to avoid a similar fate for South Korea, “I used to live in Europe... and accepting the Muslim population is literally a crazy idea,” wrote another.

The most outspoken critics of the Yemenis have come from conservative Christian groups. A recent poll showed 49% of South Koreans were opposed to accepting the refugees, while 39% were in favour of accepting them. The more surprising poll showed that over 54% of 19-40 year old also opposed them being here.

South Korea has approved just 3 Syrian refugees since 2015.

Ahmad Barro, left, Ahmad al-Othman and Ahmad Khalifa last month in Yangju, South Korea. The men, all from Syria, expressed frustration as they talked about family members left in Aleppo. Credit - Jean Chung for The New York Times

Ahmad Barro, left, Ahmad al-Othman and Ahmad Khalifa last month in Yangju, South Korea. The men, all from Syria, expressed frustration as they talked about family members left in Aleppo. Credit - Jean Chung for The New York Times

One underlying point that does sit well for the Korean government and the anti-refugee protesters is the previous track record of refugee intake, which could give the Moon administration a very easy-out.

Since 2015, some 848 Syrian refugees have applied for refugee status here, with just 3, less than 1%, of them eventually be approved, the rest given humanitarian visas. And according to further statistics from the Ministry of Justice, 40,470 people have applied for refugee status since 1994 and Korea has accepted just 839 or 4.1%. In comparison to other countries approval ratios who are significantly higher, Germany 31.7%, Mexico 55.7%, Canada 51.8 and even the average OECD stands at 24.8%, six times higher than that of South Korea.

“The point of the policy is to ensure that these Syrians will return home once the civil war is over, so not to make their life here too comfortable,” said Kim Sung-in, secretary general of Nancen, a refugee advocacy group in Seoul. “It essentially leaves them to fend for themselves.” Twenty-eight Syrians who claimed asylum thereafter the Paris terrorist attacks in November languished in crowded, windowless rooms at the airport for up to eight months. They were allowed to enter South Korea in July to apply for refugee status, but only after human rights lawyers intervened and publicized their plight.

“They told us to go elsewhere,” said Ahmad, 23, one of the 28, who asked to be identified by his given name only. “But we had nowhere else to go, so we just waited and waited.”

To Korean immigration officials, fleeing war is not sufficient grounds for asylum, said Chae Hyun-young, a legal officer at the United Nations’ refugee office in Seoul. Applicants must also be at risk of persecution. “And they focus on whether the applicant has suffered persecution in the past, rather than whether they would suffer in the future if returned home,” Ms. Chae said.

Korean War SC Coll Box 1, RG6s-KWP.27    1st LT William Millward of Baltimore, Md, Civil Assistant Officer, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, distributes candy to Korean children at a refugee collecting point in Western Korea.

Korean War SC Coll Box 1, RG6s-KWP.27 1st LT William Millward of Baltimore, Md, Civil Assistant Officer, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, distributes candy to Korean children at a refugee collecting point in Western Korea.

Now, considering that South Korea was once considered a refugee country it is quite remarkable they have this mentality towards others, and even though they are signed onto the UNHCR resettlement programme. It is quite obvious to see from their own statistics for refugee intake is incredibly low. So, there is no doubt that we must question the relationships between the more powerful middle eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Korean government going forward, and in particular towards the interests that lie in other countries, such as Yemen and Syria, who have reserves of untapped resources such as oil and gold as well as the strategic location. Not to mention any potential nuclear deals, technology patents or clean energy opportunities in the future. So we need to tread lightly when looking at what people might consider just to be a refugee issue, and we can clearly see that these countries have a lot vested in Yemen already as well as other counties in the surrounding areas.

Human rights filmmakers attempt to re-shape the narrative

Coming back to today and why I actually became interested in the Yemen refugee issue in Jeju. Being based near Seoul and with only access to mainstream media and the Korean news for information about the issue, it doesn’t paint the whole picture. So, after living in Korea now since 2011 and working as a professor at a media university as well as a documentary director on films related to human rights issues, including a North Korean film about refugees, ‘While they Watched’ (2015), the Sewol ferry tragedy, ‘After the Sewol’ (2016) and ‘Crossroads’ (2017),  another director came to discuss the idea of going to Jeju in order to plan a film about the Yemen refugee issue. So, we packed our equipment and headed to Gimpo airport in the South of Seoul.

Taken from Sewol film, After the Sewol, 2017. Photograph by Neil P George © 2016

Taken from Sewol film, After the Sewol, 2017. Photograph by Neil P George © 2016

After arriving in Jeju we spent several days driving around the island filming and location scouting, and then we made contact with the owner of Global Inner Peace, a non-profit and civil society organization that has been working with the refugees since they arrived. We arranged to go to their office to discuss the issue and organize a meeting with some refugees so we can listen to their stories.

As I walked into the room there was an air of silence. Men Sat around tables listening intently to the teacher stood in front of them. This is what a classroom should look like, keen students who are interested in learning something new and paying attention to their teacher.  What you might not expect to see are ten men, of Arabic descent, trying to speak Korean.

Since the Yemen refugees arrived on Jeju in April and May 2018, they have clearly found it difficult to integrate into the society, but they are certainly trying their best and as I stand to observe their class it’s hard to believe that just 12 hours earlier another Saudi-led airstrike bombs down on a school bus killing at least 29 children. Muwlef, the Red Crescent Director said, “I am really shocked because there is no military base or troops in that area. Why would they carry out such an action?”

The United States is, of course, helping the coalition, being the only party in the conflict to use warplanes, with refueling, intelligence and billions in weapons sales. And just last week, Yemeni rebel health officials accused the coalition of launching airstrikes in the rebel-held port city of Hodeida, killing at least 28 people and wounding scores.

Hodeida has been under siege since June, despite U.N. peace efforts. The coalition is seeking to push the Houthis out of the strategic city, whose port is an essential gateway for supplies that fuel the rebels’ ability to dominate the capital, Sanaa, and the north. Hodeida is also a key entry point for food, medicine and other aid for more than 22 million Yemenis — three-quarters of the population — in need of assistance in what the United Nations describes as the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis.

And when I woke up on the 10th August to the news of the Saudi-led bomb strike on Yemen I didn’t know what to think. I was going to meet people from a country already torn apart by war and now we are watching videos of their children being massacred.

The children were on a field trip when their bus was struck at a market, the first stop of the day; 50 were killed and 77 injured, according to the ministry. Most of the children were inside the bus when the airstrike hit, according to a local medic, Yahya al-Hadi. The International Committee for the Red Cross said a hospital it supports in Saada had received 29 bodies of "mainly children" younger than 15, and 40 injured, including 30 children.

Ayman Gharaibeh, the UNHCR representative to Yemen recently said, “The world cannot afford to let Yemen slip into the abyss”, and I think he is absolutely right.

Saudi-led air strike kills 29 children in Yemen - BBC News

A Yemeni child is transported to a hospital after being wounded in a reported airstrike on the Iran-backed Houthi rebels’ stronghold province of Sa’ada on August 9, 2018. Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

A Yemeni child is transported to a hospital after being wounded in a reported airstrike on the Iran-backed Houthi rebels’ stronghold province of Sa’ada on August 9, 2018.
Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

It is heartbreaking to see my home being destroyed and my people being killed.

After talking with the owner of Global Inner Peace, we then sat down to talk with 3 of the refugees, 2 of which were comfortable to talk about the stories, the third just wanted to listen.

“When I heard the news about the airstrike (on the 9th August) it was too painful to watch any videos. I am not a strong person and it is heartbreaking to see my home being destroyed and my people being killed. I want them to stop the killing!  M tells me.

Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018

Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018

“Our children are going to school, like they do in any other country, in order to learn and play, and they get killed in this way. If this is the way they (Saudi Arabia) are wanting to help us, we don’t want any help” says Ali AlHutaiby, a 29-year-old refugee who used to be a student from Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen.

The pain from their eyes paints a picture in itself. Coming here without much choice to go anywhere else and now being treated almost like cattle, herded together, given schedules and in some cases curfews to live by each day. Around 50 of them are crammed into accommodation at the immigration office, sharing just 1 bathroom and others sharing small rooms between 5 people in local motels.

The conflict is also taking a toll on children’s access to education where we have seen a total of 20 incidents of attacks on schools were reported and verified. Schools have been hit during both ground operations and aerial attacks, and many are currently unfit for use due to damage, the presence of IDPs or occupation by armed groups. Some 2 million children are out of school, depriving them of an education and exposing them to child recruitment into armed groups and armed forces, or child marriage. Children who have experienced stressful situations are likely to show changes in social relations, behavior, physical reactions, and emotional response manifesting as sleeping problems, nightmares, withdrawal, problems concentrating and guilt. So, when we hear about attacks happening on school buses it makes it even more upsetting and distressed. These men fled for good reasons and now have to be judged by people who are not understanding the situation they escaped from.

They have of course received help from some communities here, mostly religious based or NGO’s, who are assisting them with food, accommodation, and schooling but all the really want is the fend for themselves and live a normal life.

“I just want to live a normal life, whatever that means, and I want to help people when I am in a position to do it. Given the choice I would go home tomorrow, of course, I want to see my family and friends but I can’t. If I go back I truly believe I will die”. M tells us over coffee.

Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018

Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018

When I came to Jeju, this was a place I dreamed to call ‘paradise’.

The war, since 2015, has torn the entire country of Yemen apart, with millions abandoning their homes searching for sanctuary elsewhere but due to the lack of money, it is extremely difficult for most to escape.

Coming back to the realities of Jeju, when talking with ‘M’, he wanted to remain anonymous, and is now awaiting the decision of his refugee status in Jeju tells me, “Back in Yemen I come from a successful family but it means nothing during the war. My families house was destroyed, my entire family is scattered all over the place and now I am on Jeju island, 8000 km from my home. When I came to Jeju, this was a place I dreamed to call ‘paradise’ some 30 years ago as a child. I give thanks to God for bringing me to this place I try to call paradise and I hope to be able to live in a safe place, not a war zone. I believe that all humans need help within their lifetimes at some point and I want to be the one helping, but at this moment I am the one asking for some help and understanding”.

[caption id="attachment_77" align="alignright" width="200"]Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018[/caption]

As we talk about their daily lives in Jeju it becomes clear that all he is thinking about is wanting to help those back in his home country but knowing if he were to return he would surely be caught in a war, enlisted into the armed forces and risk being potentially killed. He continues, “I want people to understand this was my (and our) only choice to leave. If we return (to Yemen) I am sure we would be killed or at least fighting in this terrible war. I wish that people could walk in my shoes to understand what I have been through and I hope that if I can share my story, people will start to understand just a little and realize that they don’t need to be afraid of us. I would like people to feel comfortable with us and just allow us to live like human beings”. M is a Yemeni refugee who wanted to remain anonymous for fear that his family and friends could suffer if he is seen on the news or social media speaking out against what is happening back in his home country.

South Korea has had a vested interest in the Middle East since the 1970s.

People boarding a ship near Masan, South Korea, in 1950.    PHOTO: JIM PRINGLE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

People boarding a ship near Masan, South Korea, in 1950.

Refugees are not new in South Korea, in fact, Korea itself was a refugee country during and after the Korean War, that ended in an armistice in 1953, with some estimates of the numbers of people displaced ranging widely, with anywhere from 1 million to more than 5 million forced to flee. So one could presume that a country that has been through a war, technically still not resolved, would have a better understanding of the issues surrounding refugees and show some form of empathy towards other countries going through a similar plight.

And of course, South Korea is also not new to the issues within the middle east, having been involved there for some time selling arms and supplying troops, particularly to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In fact, South Korean arms exports, amounted to $253 million in 2006 and reached $2.5 billion ten years later, and according to the SIPRI Top 100 arms and military weapons producing companies, including the Korea Aerospace industries, Hanhwa Corp. and LIG Nex1, South Korea has increased their arms sales by 20.6 percent to $8.4 billion, putting them alongside ‘other established producers’ such as Israel and Japan.

arms .jpg

The relationship between these countries can be traced back to the 1970s under Park Chung Hee, the dictator who ruled Korea between 1963-1979.

In the early 1970s, the face of the Middle East changed when the oil boom brought a rapid increase in revenues to oil-producing nations. This led these countries, mainly in the Middle East, to launch ambitious programs of public spending on infrastructure to foreign companies. The 1970s oil boom opened opportunities for South Korean companies to expand to the Middle East and compete with other international companies. Seoul began to regard this region as an attractive market for its industries, mainly the construction companies. The main goals of the government and the chaebol were to increase the competitiveness of South Korea’s economy and South Korean chaebol and to overcome the conception that South Korean companies were incapable of competing in international projects.

Moving forward to the modern relationship between UAE and Korea, we only need to go back to 2009 under the Lee Myoung Park administration when they made an agreement to send troops to the UAE, becoming known as the ‘Akh unit’, in Arabic meaning ‘brothers’. These soldiers were sent to train the UAE forces and continued throughout Lee Myoung Park and the Park Guen Hye administrations.


It was also reported in a Wiki-leaks document that, South Korea has more than 716 troops in 13 countries, including a peacekeeping mission on the Lebanese-Israeli border and naval counter-piracy operations in Somalia. Seoul also plans to expand its deployment in Afghanistan, sending 350 troops to Parwan province north of the Afghan capital Kabul to protect reconstruction efforts by South Korean engineers and workers.

In the future, Korea plans to expand its standing army of peacekeepers to 3,000 and to increase humanitarian and disaster-relief missions throughout the world.

Ex-President Lee Myong Bak

Ex-President Lee Myong Bak

This relationship will be a great benefit to the UAE, as it will be able to gain extensive experience with special forces, due to the ongoing conflict with North Korea. Abu Dhabi is struggling with security threats in it's near abroad, including the desire to root out terrorism and maintain a stable business environment for foreign investors, as well as deeper problems arising from increasing unpredictability over Iran's role in the region and the potential for conflict to emerge in reaction to it. South Korea can offer high-tech goods and services that Abu Dhabi needs to develop and diversify its energy sector and the overall economy.

Rep. Kim Jong-dae of the Justice Party

Rep. Kim Jong-dae of the Justice Party

The 139-strong unit, composed of the Navy's UDT/SEAL and other special operation forces, would carry out the duty of helping train the Middle Eastern country's special forces and protect South Korean residents there in case of an emergency, the ministry said in a statement. Allegations were raised in 2018 by an opposition lawmaker, Rep. Kim Jong-dae of the Justice Party, that South Korea has actually signed at least six secret military deals with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) under the governments of conservative Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. Rep. Kim Jong-dae of the Justice Party claimed the Lee government signed five of the deals on military cooperation, while the Park administration signed at least one. These types of deals are not new between countries but it was alleged that these deals played a significant role in South Korea also winning bids for an $18.6 billion deal to build nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

It is also worth noting that the ROK-UAE nuclear deal had been criticized in South Korea for being commercially weak. The bid was reported to be about 20 percent beneath the industry average bidding price range. Other unsuccessful bidders from France, Japan, and the United States may now feel a bit better about losing out to KEPCO, knowing that there was more behind the deal than a mere cost discount. 

Park Jie-won, floor leader of the Democratic Party (DP)

Park Jie-won, floor leader of the Democratic Party (DP)

And when we trace this back to 2011, Park Jie-won, floor leader of the Democratic Party (DP), had already lashed out at President Lee Myung-bak for his alleged opaque dealings over Korea winning an $18.6 billion deal to build nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and although in response, Knowledge Economy Minister Choi Joong-Kyung refuted the claim, saying, the government made no backdoor deals with the UAE and did not include the proposal to lend the construction cost in the final contract.

However, as we now know it was confirmed by the Former Defense Minister Kim Tae-young, in 2018, that the two countries had, in fact, signed a secret military pact mandating South Korea dispatch its troops to the UAE in the event of a contingency. “It was basically about having South Korean troops come to the UAE when it was in military trouble,” Kim said in an interview with local daily JoongAng Ilbo. “During peacetime, it was about helping with UAE’s military training and weapons management.”

Former Defense Minister Kim Tae-young

Former Defense Minister Kim Tae-young

So, in having these secret pacts between South Korea and middle eastern countries we could easily be led to question how much influence they might have in regards to any other issues, perhaps issues surrounding refugees..?

From all the available information it is clear that South Korea has a large amount invested in the countries of Saudi Arabia and UAE, and they, in turn, are also looking for opportunities to try to influence the somewhat less developed areas, specifically within Yemen, in order to gain more influence and power, mostly due to its highly strategic position as well as having resources of oil, gold, and other valuable minerals. Taking all of this into account we have not even considering the USA’s role within the Saudi-led coalition.

The US classified the middle east as the most strategically important area of the world at the end of the 2nd world and little has changed since then. They have a lot to gain in strategic positioning, weapons sales, oil exploration and of course a main transportation hub throughout the world. But as the power of SA and UAE grow there seems to be a power struggle not just within the immediate countries but also from the US, and while they still remain the primary security guarantor in the Middle East, many of its partners have become far more capable and far more assertive: They decide on their interests, how to best achieve them, and the types of relationships they wish to pursue with other actors.

"The US is certainly in a bind in Yemen," said Katherine Zimmerman, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "It doesn't make sense that the United States has identified al-Qaeda as a threat, but that we have common interests inside of Yemen and that, in some places, it looks like we're looking the other way."

"The Obama administration had reservations about the Yemen war from the beginning, but supported the fight largely to show support for Saudi Arabia at a time when the relationship was strained by the Iran nuclear deal," Blecher explained. Which as we all know President Trump has now pulled out of.

Who has the most to gain out of this relationship?

Returning to the UAE and its interests, it is clear that they have a lot to gain from the agreements with South Korea, already having 5 MOU’s, as well as various other agreements, exports and import opportunities as well. Aside to the trade relationship between the two countries which is also booming, according to figures from the South Korean embassy. In the first half of 2017, South Korea’s exports to the UAE were valued at $2.95 billion (Dh10.8 billion), a 4 per cent increase on the same period in 2016, while the UAE’s H1 exports to South Korea grew 47 per cent to $4.29 billion in 2016. And in November 2017, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made an unexpected and its largest ever investment in the South Korean stock market, and much attention has been given to what is behind it. The Middle East nation might have suddenly become attracted to domestic stocks as they purchased a net 967 billion won (US$906.28 million) worth of South Korean stocks last November.

Yemen's strategic importance ©L. Saubadu / K. Tian / C. Mutto, cam/gil/jj (AFP/File)

Yemen's strategic importance ©L. Saubadu / K. Tian / C. Mutto, cam/gil/jj (AFP/File)

The nation’s holdings of listed South Korean shares, which stood at 2.86 trillion won (US$2.68 billion) at the end of 2008 when the Lee Myung-bak administration came to office, continued to increase to 5.446 trillion won (US$5.103 billion) at the end of 2009, 6.836 trillion won (US$6.406 billion) at the end of 2010, 6.837 trillion won (US$6.408 billion) at the end of 2011 and 8.24 trillion won (US$7.722 billion) at the end of 2012, Lee’s last year in office.

The amount of the UAE’s South Korean shareholdings came to 8.242 trillion won (US$7.724 billion) at the end of 2013 during the first year of the Park Geun-hye presidency, up a mere 2 billion won (US$1.874 million) in a year. The figure slightly rose to 8.962 trillion won (US$8.399 billion) at the end of 2014 but kept decreasing since then to 8.254 billion trillion won (US$7.736 billion) at the end of 2015 and 6.931 trillion won (US$6.496 billion) at the end of 2016. It gradually rebounded from last year, returned to the 8 trillion won (US$7.5 billion) level at the end of May when there was a presidential election and showed an increase since then.

The UAE's stock investment was mostly concentrated on oil-related companies in the past, but the investment made in November concentrated on about 100 major companies including Samsung Electronics Co., SK Hynix, and Hyundai Motor Co. Some analysts speculate that some senior South Korean officials' previous visits to the UAE may well have led to Abu Dhabi's increased investment in Korean stocks.

This proves the countries have significant levels of interest within each other's economies as well as looking to push for new deals between the two countries in the future. So, having social issues, such as the Yemeni refugee issue could easily create some tensions within the relationship, something I am sure is not wanted from either side.

And when Moon went to visit the UAE in early 2018, he took the opportunity to emphasize the strength of bilateral relations, downplaying recent reports about a possible discord, “The Akh unit is the pride of Korea’s armed forces, and the symbol of cooperation between Korea and the UAE,” adding that the unit was instrumental in the two countries forming a relationship of special strategic partners. Perhaps he was unaware of the exact dealings that had taken place during the previous administrations under Lee Myoung Park and Park Guen Hye, who coincidentally are both now residing in jail for bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion, and corruption.

The opposition parties also criticized the Moon administration over a senior presidential aide's recent visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), "There is also a rumor that the UAE even mentioned the severance of diplomatic relations, and Im (Im Jong-seok, Blue House chief of staff) was sent as a special envoy to resolve the issue," LKP floor leader Kim Sung-tae said during a committee meeting. "The Moon government has caused a diplomatic stir, being immersed in political retaliation against its conservative predecessors."

Khaldoon Khalifa al-Mubarak of Abu Dhabi, left, chief of Abu Dhabi’s Organization & Administration Department, meets with Presidential Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok (Yonhap)

Khaldoon Khalifa al-Mubarak of Abu Dhabi, left, chief of Abu Dhabi’s Organization & Administration Department, meets with Presidential Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok (Yonhap)

Im on Sunday (December 10th 2017) met with Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces. He also met with the Akh Unit in the UAE, touring the facilities, receiving a briefing by the soldiers. And when Moon visited the UAE to show a strengthening of ties, this could well be seen as playing straight into the hands of the coalition formed to battle the Shiite rebels in Yemen, and could cause even more destruction within the already war-torn country, and in turn help the Saudi government to improve their stronghold over the already weakened Yemeni government.

However, a former South Korean defense minister has downplayed the chance of entering a conflict alongside the UAE and classified it as a "low risk." But the Shiite rebels in Yemen, who the UAE is battling as part of a Saudi-led coalition, say they have already tried to target the under-construction Barakah nuclear power plant with a cruise missile, which is coincidentally being built by the Korean Electrical Power Corporation (KEPCO).


"The Barakah nuclear power plant is not simply a mega construction project worth $18.6 billion," Moon wrote. "The fact that the UAE put confidence in Korea, which had no experience in constructing overseas nuclear power plants, and signed a contract with us to build one in Barakah was possible only because there was deep trust between our two countries."

This project will have immense implications on South Korean trade with other Middle Eastern nations that perceive Seoul as a potential contractor for building these nuclear power plants in other regional states and in regions outside the Middle East. It is no coincidence that South Korea should be building better military and economic relations with the UAE as the mission clearly complements the economic relationship. South Korea also has a vested interest in the oil coming out of the middle east, but i will talk about this later in the article.

So, if we bear all of this in mind, we simply must question how much influence will the UAE and Saudi governments have towards the Yemeni refugee issue and what effect would this have on the relationship between Korea and middle eastern countries going forward if they do? Would the Moon administration potentially risk all of these potential deals in the future for 549 Yemeni refugees?

The strategic position of Yemen will play a significant role.

Economically, Yemen is important to the global flow of oil, however, in the resource-rich Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is only a minor player in the global oil business mostly due to a lack of investment and continuing attacks on its infrastructure, which has led to Yemen’s oil production decreasing since 2001. (It just about produces 131,000 barrels of crude oil per day and its oil reserves are barely bigger than those of the United Kingdom.) Yet a major escalation of its conflict would have severe repercussions across global oil markets for geo-strategic reasons. Yemen is located adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important energy choke-point, and to the Bab-el-Mandab Strait, which controls access to the Suez Canal.

The strategic positioning of the small island of Socotra as well as the harbor ports of Aden and Mulkalla will surely play a significant role in the growth and development of the country as well as the security of Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the other middle eastern countries in the future, thus impacting even further on their broken economy. Moreover, the strategic location along the Bab el Mandeb, the strait that links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and is one of the world's most active shipping lanes, which should be considered highly strategic and an invaluable position to SA. The port harbors of both Aden and Al Mukalla having both been bombed significantly since 2015, the first incident reported on May 11, 2015, when a U.S drone strike killed four AQAP militants traveling in a car around the Mukalla, including the commander Mamoun Abdulhamid Hatem. “The UAE plays a parallel role on the Yemeni island of Socotra to maintain security and stability, support development projects, and help the people of the island,” the ministry said. It added that its military presence “comes within the efforts of the Arab Coalition to support the legitimacy at this critical stage in the history of Yemen.”


Now, most of Yemen's GDP comes from its limited oil production, which accounts for about 85 percent of export earnings and 75 percent of government revenue.  Therefore, confirming that these port harbors play a vital element in the economy of Yemen, due to being the most natural and logical place for shipping across the world. The Port of Aden, in 2018, actually witnessed a steady growth during the first half of this year compared to the same period last year, and the handling rate is now the largest during the past ten years. From January to June 2018 it reached 333 vessels, an increase of 6% over the same period last year and the shipped cargo reaching 570,266 tons, an increase of 115% weighing 1,062,097 tons, an increase of up to 194% from last year. But where is this much-needed money going, into the hands of the already rich SA coalition or is it finding its way into the Yemen economy?


Photo was taken from article published on  The Atlantic

Photo was taken from article published on The Atlantic

These numbers, of course, tell a story in themselves, and even though there is a civil war raging, the strait of Bab el Mandeb and the port city of Aden are still playing an ever-increasing role bringing goods around the world, including taking oil to countries such as Japan, South Korea, India and China, some of the largest economies in the world. At the same time, there is a vast fear growing in relation to the security of the shipping vessels in the area and the growing ties between Yemen’s Houthi Shi’ites and Iran poses another threat to both Saudi Arabia and the United States. It potentially could allow Iran to outflank the Gulf, and deploy air and naval forces to Yemen. This threat still seems limited, but it is important to note that Yemen’s territory and islands play a critical role in the security of another global choke point at the southeastern end of the Red Sea called the Bab el Mandab or “gate of tears.”

Another thing to consider is that Yemen may well be a small country, but it does have a population of 26.1 million and one of the highest population growth rates in the world. Nearly 63% of its population is 24 years of age or younger and it is deeply divided between Sunnis (65%) and Shiites, like the Houthis, (35%). So, when South Korea saw the influx of Yemen refugees seeking asylum in 2018 it should not have been a surprise that they saw many young males entering.

Yemen is one of the world’s largest protection crises.

For over two and a half years, airstrikes, armed clashes and attacks on civilian infrastructure have pushed Yemen into a downward spiral, resulting in the world’s largest food security crisis, and enabling the spread of cholera at an unprecedented scale. Half of the Yemeni population live in areas directly affected by conflict, many of whom are suffering from the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, and other apparent violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The crisis in Yemen is one of the world’s largest protection crises and has forcibly displaced three million people from their homes.

This conflict has been raging now since 2015 and according to the Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, Yemen is one of the world’s largest protection crises, in which civilians face serious risks to their safety, well-being and basic rights. As of 15 October 2017, health facilities reported 8,757 conflict-related deaths and over 50,610 injuries, and over three million people have been forced to flee from their homes. Millions of people in Yemen need humanitarian assistance to ensure their basic survival. An estimated 17.8 million are food insecure, 16 million lack access to safe water and sanitation, and 16.4 million lack access to adequate healthcare. Needs across the country have grown more acute since June 2017, with 11.3 million in acute need of humanitarian assistance in order to survive – this is an increase of 15 percent in five months.

I am always a firm believer that people should know their history in order to learn from it and not make the same mistakes again. And after researching about Yemen it became clear that a lot of people don’t actually realize the war didn’t really start in 2015. It can be traced back to 1990 when the two states unified, which in turn caused even more tensions and if we go back even further than that we can see why.

The Yemen Arab Republic

In 1962 - Imam Ahmad died and was succeeded by his son but the army officers seized power, setting up the Yemen Arab Republic, which in turn sparked a civil war between royalists supported by Saudi Arabia and republicans backed by Egypt. In 1967 South Yemen was formed with the formation of the People's Republic of Yemen, comprising Aden and former Protectorate of South Arabia, which led to thousands fleeing to the north following a crackdown on dissidents and the armed groups formed a bid in order to overthrow the government. 1978 we see Ali Abdallah Saleh become the President of North Yemen and fighting continued with a renewed effort to try to unite the two states and then in 1986 thousands die in the south due to the political rivalry and at that point. President Ali Nasser Muhammad fled the country, later to be sentenced to death for treason. This then led to a new government being formed.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, In office 22 May 1990 – 27 February 2012. Killed on 4 December 2017.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, In office
22 May 1990 – 27 February 2012. Killed on 4 December 2017.

May 1990, the two Yemenis united as the Republic of Yemen with Mr. Saleh as President, but tensions between the states endured. A coalition government was formed in April 1993 made up of ruling parties of former north and south and then in August, the Vice-President Ali Salim al-Baid withdraws to Aden, alleging that the south is being marginalized and southerners are being attacked by northerners. Saleh declares a state of emergency in May 1994 and dismisses Al-Baid and other southern government members following a political deadlock and sporadic fighting. Al-Baid declares independence of the Democratic Republic of Yemen and Northern forces capture Aden, whilst the southern leaders flee abroad and are sentenced to death in absentia.

USS Cole was bombed in an attack against the  United States Navy  guided-missile destroyer  USS  Cole   on 12 October 2000.

USS Cole was bombed in an attack against the United States Navyguided-missile destroyerUSS Cole on 12 October 2000.

The US naval vessel USS Cole is damaged in an al-Qaeda suicide attack in Aden in 2000, killing 17 US personnel and sparking more violence leading up to February 2002 when Yemen expels more than 100 foreign Islamic clerics in a crackdown on al-Qaeda. In October Al-Qaeda attacks and badly damages oil supertanker MV Limburg in Gulf of Aden, killing one and injuring 12 crew members and costing Yemen dear in lost port revenues. We then see the Houthi insurgency in 2004, when hundreds are killed as troops battle the Shia insurgency led by Hussein al-Houthi in the north. After several months of clashes, President Saleh says the leader of the rebellion in the north has agreed to renounce the campaign in return for a pardon. In March 2006 more than 600 followers of the slain Shia cleric Hussein al-Houthi who was captured following a rebellion he led in 2004 are released under an amnesty and Saleh wins another election term.

September 2008 sees an attack on the US embassy in the Yemeni capital Sanaa which kills 18 people, including six assailants and in October the President announces the arrest of suspected Islamist militants allegedly linked to Israeli intelligence and the fighting continues until February 2010 when they finally signed a ceasefire with the Houthi northern rebels, but this breaks down in December.

After months of mounting protests, President Saleh is injured in a rocket attack and flown to Saudi Arabia, returning home in September, eventually handing over power to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who is inaugurated as President after uncontested elections.

Jumping forward to 2014 when the Houthi rebels take control of most of the capital Sanaa and then go onto reject the draft constitution proposed by the government in 2015. This led up to the two suicide bombings that targeted Shia mosques in Sana’a in which 137 people are killed. To view the full breakdown of the Yemen modern history here.

Houthi Shiite Yemeni raise their weapons during clashes near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, Jan. 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Houthi Shiite Yemeni raise their weapons during clashes near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, Jan. 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

So, when people talk about the Yemen war we must realise that it is not something that just started in 2015, this goes back a lot longer and it also has many similarities to what we saw happen with the Korean war, and what Korea has been through since the 1950s, not just with North Korea but even within the country itself. We could easily discuss the development of Korea post-war, and how Syngman Rhee took control of an unstable democracy, only to be overthrown by Park Chung Hee. The country, during 1960’s and 70s under the dictatorship of Park, was developed ‘at all costs’, effectively forcing the people to work 7 days a week, earning barely enough to feed their families. All of that economic development came at a cost and it ultimately led up to the 5.18 Gwangju uprising in 1980 and then the eventual 6.10 democracy movement in 1987, where Korea finally became a democracy. But the Korean people still continued to fight throughout the 1990’s and 2000s to build the economy and become a more democratic state but in doing, so they left the safety culture at the back, which resulted in various man-made disasters, such as the Sampoong, Seung-su bridge collapse, Seohae ferry disaster and even more recently the Sewol ferry tragedy in 2014. Obviously, I don’t intend to talk about Korean history but when you explore the situation in Yemen, the comparables between Yemen and Korea are easy to see, both the society, the history with dictatorships and the way they are trying to be controlled by outside influence, such as the USA, Saudi Arabia, UAE and you don’t need to look that hard to see these similarities.

They even continue in terms of the geographic location, South Korea being the Asian Pacific hub between China, Russia, Japan and the rest of the world and when we look at Yemen’s positioning we can explore this in a broader strategic context, and the crisis in Yemen can be seen as only a part of the U.S.-Saudi strategic equation.


The Broader Strategic Importance of the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula

U.S.- Saudi partnership and cooperation are critical in building some form of deterrence and strategic stability to contain Iran in the Gulf. Any nuclear agreement will not affect the need for close cooperation between the United States, Saudi Arabia and other key members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in dealing with the broader and active threat Iran poses in terms of conventional forces, asymmetric warfare, missiles, and strategic influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip.

From a strategic viewpoint, the flow of oil and gas tanker traffic out of the Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz remains the world’s most important energy choke point. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) also reported in November 2014 that an average of 167 million barrels worth of oil a day passed through the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait of Hormuz is the world's most important oil chokepoint because of its daily oil flow of 17 million barrels per day in 2013. Flows through the Strait of Hormuz in 2013 were about 30% of all seaborne-traded oil. EIA estimates that more than 85% of the crude oil that moved through this choke point went to Asian markets, based on data from Lloyd's List Intelligence tanker tracking service.6 Japan, India, South Korea, and China are the largest destinations for oil moving through the Strait of Hormuz. Qatar exported about 3.7 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) per year of liquefied natural gas (LNG) through the Strait of Hormuz in 2013, according to BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2014.7

This volume accounts for more than 30% of global LNG trade. Kuwait imports LNG volumes that travel northward through the Strait of Hormuz.

There is no question that Yemen is confronting a humanitarian crisis that has been exacerbated by the entry of the Saudi-led coalition into the war.

We met them for the second time and went to a coffee shop on the north coast of Jeju, not that far away from the immigration centre where around 50 others are staying and we talked about their lives back in Yemen and what they have been doing since arriving here in May. After coming from Malaysia, where they were constantly trying to find work for around 3 years, what the Korean people don’t seem understand is they just simply didn’t have anywhere else to go, and so when they hear about the Yemen refugees in Jeju in the media they don’t appear to have any interest in trying to understand the issue that brought them here in the first place.

Ali tells us he spent 6 days in the airport waiting to be interviewed for refugee status before being allowed to enter the island. We discussed the recent news and the related media and M tells us, “People shouldn’t believe the media from the middle east. They just tell misinformation and propaganda about Yemen and the issues we have. We are actually a very peaceful people and the media only concentrating on Syria. Why they don’t they talk more about Yemen and what we have gone through!”

Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018

Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018

According to Afrah Nasser, an independent Yemeni journalist who is based in Sweden, “When western news outlets cover Yemen it's often 'parachute journalism.' This is mainly because it's been hard to access Yemen and if you want to get in you have to get permission from the Saudis and the Houthis. For foreign journalists, it's become hell to enter or leave the country and a trip that used to take a few hours might now take days or even weeks."

With the constant news feeds giving focus on other Middle Eastern countries and the difficulty in accessing the country, it also brings attention to who is controlling this limited information coming out of Yemen, and it also highlights the important issue we are dealing with today of ‘fake news’, and who do we actually trust for our news. This has become an important question since President Trump came into power, with his constant berating of the ‘mainstream’ media that he doesn't like. But this is a whole different conversation altogether.

Coming back to the refugees, it is clear they are angry and upset about what is happening in Yemen but also they are powerless to do anything whilst residing in Jeju and you can sense the frustration about what is happening around their own situation.

They told us that they try to have contact with their relatives and friends every couple of weeks back in Yemen but due to the power issues and lack of cellular services it is becoming harder each week, and they echoed the UN report that said the situation is getting worse in Yemen. And after reading through the UN report published back in 2017 I can see exactly where they are coming from.

It is clear from the report that all parties to the conflict display a disregard for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law and impede the principled and timely delivery of humanitarian assistance and this can be seen with the 8,878 total reported incidents as of October 2017.

un 1.jpg

They are in a severe economic decline and in fact, there hasn’t even been electric there since 2011. On top of all of this the recent closures of Yemen’s ports (sea, land, and airports) on 6 November 2017 by the Saudi-led Coalition, threatens Yemenis’ lifelines and remains partially effective in Hudaydah, Salif and Sana’a. Within 24 hours of this, the prices for food, fuel, and water had soared, putting them out of reach of vulnerable populations, which highlights the volatility of the situation in Yemen.

The UN report goes on to say that this is the world’s largest man-made food security crisis Yemen is now the world’s largest man-made food security crisis. However, this crisis is not driven by a lack of food in the country but rather, Yemen’s food crisis is driven by factors constraining the supply, distribution and people’s diminishing purchasing power. Ongoing conflict and economic decline have steadily eroded people’s coping mechanisms, leaving large parts of the population at the risk of famine.

un 2.jpg

As we continue to talk with M and Ali they both nod their heads in agreement about it but all they seem to be thinking about at this moment are their own struggles.

It is almost unimaginable what is happening back in Yemen with over 22.1 million people in need of assistance and we are now sitting discussing the issues with men who are also trying to find their way in Jeju. On top of that, there are a lot of people in Korea who appear to want them to leave, and it would also appear that a vast majority of them don’t have any idea about the situation itself.


The photo was taken from the  Yemen Press .

The photo was taken from the Yemen Press.

The costs of this terrible war rise higher and higher... We have to wake up to the reality of what is happening in Yemen.

The refugees in Jeju just want their voices to be heard and want people to understand why they came here. A plight not so dissimilar to that of the Sewol ferry victims families, who I spent 3 years filming with, and who fought for that entire time for their voices to be heard, and all within their own country. Perhaps that in itself shows the mentality of this incredibly insular society and in particular the attitude of the previous administrations. So, one does wonder how these Yemeni strangers will continue to be received in the future.

Yemeni children raise protest signs and chant slogans during a demonstration in the capital Sanaa on August 12, 2018, against an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition which hit a bus killing dozens of children. (AFP Photo)

Yemeni children raise protest signs and chant slogans during a demonstration in the capital Sanaa on August 12, 2018, against an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition which hit a bus killing dozens of children. (AFP Photo)

However, I am a firm believer that once the Korean people gain a much better understanding of the situation they will be more accepting and allow them to try and create a normal life for themselves, which in turn will help them to earn some money that they can then send back to their families in Yemen. This money can be used to support the and booster the local economy in some small part, hopefully bringing back some normality to their lives in general. The Yemen war, known as the forgotten war, has been raging for a long time and well before 2015 and if people can see that, understand the issues and try to help the refugees, perhaps we can start to bring back some decency to the world that seems to have lost all reason these days.

The golden rule by which we should live.

A golden rule in life that I very much practice is the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated. It is the maxim of many religions and societies but what we seem to be witnessing from a vast majority of people in South Korea is almost the complete opposite. I myself would urge each and every Korean to take a good hard look in the mirror. Look at your grandparents and your own country's history. See how the rest of the world treated them when they were caught up in the Korean War. Now, try and put yourselves in the shoes of these young Yemeni men and women who had no choice but to flee their own war-torn country in search of a place they could try to call paradise, perhaps not what we all think of one but to them it is a paradise that they hope to be able to call a second home one day.

When I came to Jeju to talk with the refugees I did not consider how deep this issue is rooted. This issue is not just about the Yemen refugees, it goes a lot deeper than that, but at the heart of it is; Can we allow ourselves to turn a blind eye to these growing human rights issues that are taking place all over the world and sometimes right next door?

Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018

Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018

We can only understand these issues when we open our eyes, our ears, and our minds, and what I witnessed after the Sewol ferry tragedy and the empowerment of the South Korean people is now being heavily diminished by their attitude towards the Yemen refugees. I hope these people can wake up and realise that we are all human beings at the end of the day and try thinking about a very simple ideology known as the golden rule. It says, “Before one performs an action which might harm another person, try to imagine yourself in their position, and consider whether you would want to be the recipient of that action. If you would not want to be in such a position, the other person probably would not either, and so you should not do it”.

This is the basic and fundamental human trait of empathy, the ability to vicariously experience how another is feeling, that makes this possible, and it is the principle of empathy by which we should live our lives. In writing this piece I wanted to try and shed some more light into the Yemen refugee issue in Jeju and ultimately I hope people can start to understand and then feel some empathy for what their country has been through and what they now experiencing. I will leave you with the words of M, a young male Yemeni striving to make a way for himself here and for people to listen to his story.

I believe that all humans need help at some point within their lifetime, and I truly want to be the one helping, but at this moment I am the one asking people to help and understand me”.

Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018

Photograph by Hankyul Kim © 2018


Neil P. George is an assistant professor lecturing on documentary and editing in the Visual Production department at Dong-Ah Institute of Media and Arts. He is also a documentary director producing films related to South Korea and human rights issues.