A South Korean in Paris, as a Refugee

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“Diego” could easily pass for one of many South Korean tourists who flock to Paris for food, shopping, and that legendary ‘je ne sais quoi’ appeal of the French capital.

He is actually among a rare few: South Korean asylum seekers who demand protection from foreign governments because of persecution back home.

One of the stories worth following in South Korea concerns young people’s disenchantment with their country — termed “Hell Joseon” in cyberlingo — and how that feeling of disappointment is feeding an exodus to other nations such as Australia, Canada and Northern European states.

There are also South Koreans, such as Diego, who seek asylum abroad on the basis of pacifist beliefs — anathema to mandatory military service — or homosexuality.

In late August the Korea Exposé team had a chance to speak with Diego, 29, at a café near the Louvre. He shared what drove him to request asylum from the French government on the grounds of his sexual orientation and opposition to military service, and how it feels for him to build a new home in a country where he remains in a legal limbo and has yet to master the language.

He may not be happy yet, but he assures us that he is “relieved.”

“In South Korea there is now talk among young people of pooling money to fund emigration. There is also that phrase ‘Hell Joseon.’ As for me, I was involved in the peace movement. I had long thought about making conscientious objection to military service. I wanted to enact the values of the peace movement. But I was afraid of prison. Even now I am afraid.”

In South Korea there is no alternative to mandatory military service, required of all “able-bodied” young men. Refusing to serve generally leads to a prison sentence of one year. (Many who go to prison for the refusal come from the Jehovah’s Witness community.)

For Diego, however, it wasn’t just about avoiding prison or military service. He had another reason to rethink his life in South Korea.

“Around 2012 I became an activist for human rights of sexual minorities. I realized then that it would be extremely hard for me whether in the military or in prison. I am also a member of a sexual minority. And the military is known for abusing members of sexual minorities.”

Diego’s experiences of being bullied in school, even before he had fully formed an awareness of his sexual orientation, helped to cement his view that South Korea breeds systemic homophobia and sexual violence.

“When I was in my last year at high school, the teacher said to me, ‘If you go serve in the military, you will be raped for sure.’ He said this to me in front of all the other students.”

He is remarkably calm while recounting various anecdotes about being a victim of intense bullying. At a school where an ideal male student was good at kicking a ball and had a “masculine, solid” look, Diego’s pale face, lack of athletic abilities and demeanor seen by others as ‘feminine’ marked him as an easy target.

“Even friends said, ‘What will you do when you go into the military? Military service is actually the least of your worries. You will get raped just by walking down the street at night.’ It wasn’t just friends but also teachers who said to me, ‘Since you look this way, you should just cut it off and become a woman.’”

With such experiences behind him, Diego began over several years to consider Canada and Europe as potential destinations for escape, and read an article about Lee Ye-da, a young South Korean man who won asylum in France as a conscientious objector to military service. It hardened Diego’s resolve to go to Paris.

“I had only a month or so to prepare. The South Korean military service law says that a person who has not completed military service can go abroad only through the end of the year he turns 27. And you must return the next year at the latest. In 2013 I was scheduled to begin my military service the following year. When I decided to apply for asylum in France it was already November 2013. I had less than two months before my window of opportunity for overseas travel closed.”

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Jun Michael Park for Korea Exposé

His parents were not happy about his decision. Diego’s father went so far as to say that “he would expose me and stop me from getting on the plane at the airport. But I was able to leave without any problem and my friends were supportive.”

When he landed in Paris, he had his passport and birth certificate, as well as various official documents he knew he would never be able to obtain after leaving South Korea. He was nervous.

“I was worried at the airport. My passport was really thin. It was for one-time use. Because of the military service law, I could only have this one-time use passport with a one-year expiration date.”

Belying his worries, the immigration officer stamped his passport without a second glance. He was in France. Then other worries set in over surviving in a foreign land. Fortunately an activist acquaintance introduced Diego to someone, who in turn spread the word about him around the progressive South Korean community in France.

An unexpected benefactor appeared in the form of a French citizen who showed interest in the South Korean political situation and offered Diego a place to live in Paris. Safely housed, he now patiently awaits the outcome of his asylum application, filed first at the police and later at the office specializing in refugee claims.

Diego has no work permit but lives frugally on a monthly sum of 350 euros, given to each asylum applicant by the French government. His immediate goal is getting integrated into French society, but it’s no easy feat. He describes himself as “a pure native South Korean” and acknowledges that “It’s hard to embrace a new language.”

But the most difficult part is “being treated like a foreigner” or an outsider, much as he was in South Korea. “And while I cannot generalize about all French people, some seem genuinely uninterested in foreign languages and cultures. I tried to show them South Korean materials and explain some things but there are friends who will outright refuse to listen.”

Though he has always been interested in France and likes the country, he laments that Asians appear to be to a certain degree abstracted and caricaturized in France and says there is an “Orientalist” tendency in people he meets, especially outside the LGBT community.

Asking him whether he is happy now summons complex emotions on his face. “I ask myself every morning: Am I truly happy? Of course there are some very dissatisfying things. I also long for certain experiences or things I had in South Korea. But nowadays I often dream at night that I never left South Korea. These dreams show me what kind of humiliation I would have suffered in the military or just by working and living, as a gay man.”

Diego started talking to his parents again early last year. They can now somewhat understand, however distantly, why he had to leave. While they still have difficulty accepting that their son is gay, they plan to visit Paris soon in order to see him.

Under what scenario could he see himself staying in South Korea instead of living the life of an asylum seeker in Paris?

“If there was no homophobic mentality, maybe. The South Korean military suffers from major human rights problems, including violations of LGBT people’s human rights. I personally felt deeply disillusioned with the military. And South Korean society itself is extremely antagonistic toward anything that is perceived as feminine behavior on the part of men. That’s what made me leave.”

I smile a little to myself while typing up Diego’s last statement because we are after all talking about a country where it’s become socially acceptable for men to wear makeup. But Diego has a valid point: South Korean masculinity is a layered construct, much of it based on traditional notions of manliness, and only recently served with a smear of BB cream on top.

Although Diego has escaped it all for the time being, uncertainty remains over how his asylum application will ultimately be processed by the French authorities. But what preoccupies him most of the time is not his own personal fate but the situation facing young people in South Korea.

“Teenagers are in a very vulnerable position in South Korean society. Look at the Sewol ferry sinking. Teenagers’ human rights are not respected. I really worry about their rights. When I think about that, I feel like I never left South Korea at all even though I am in France right now.”

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.