By Timothy S. Rich, Kaitlyn Bison, and Aleksandra Kozovic

South Korea has not traditionally been a destination for displaced persons. Most refugee arrivals are North Koreans, who numbered 1,047 in 2019. They are automatically granted South Korean citizenship and services provided by the government for easier assimilation.

The situation is markedly different for non-Korean refugees. The vastly different treatment these refugees face was made clear in a high-profile incident in 2018, when 550 Yemeni asylum seekers landed on the resort island of Jeju. Public backlash to accepting the Yemeni refugees was fierce.

According to government data, out of 40,400 non-Koreans who have applied for refugee status from 1994-2018, only 839, or 2 percent, have received it.

As a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, South Korea has the responsibility to protect refugees. Accepting refugees and encouraging immigration can address the country’s need for workers in light of the country’s low birth rates and aging population. However, a more open immigration policy would likely come up against public opposition.

To see how South Korean public support for refugees is influenced by refugees’ ethnicity and religion, we surveyed 1,111 South Koreans from March 2-12 via web survey, using quota sampling by age, gender, and region based on census data. After a series of demographic and attitudinal questions, respondents were randomly assigned to receive one of the following three prompts to evaluate on a five-point scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree):

Version 1: South Korea should be more welcoming of North Korean arrivals.

Version 2: South Korea should be more welcoming of non-Korean refugees.

Version 3: South Korea should be more welcoming of Muslim refugees.


Only 34.6 percent of respondents indicated South Korea should be more welcoming of North Koreans, dropping to 15.9 percent for non-Korean refugees and 5.4 percent for Muslim refugees. In contrast, majorities of those who were prompted with the non-Korean or Muslim versions disagreed with the statement — 53 percent and 65.5 percent, respectively — compared to only 20.8 percent on the North Korean version.

Regression analysis finds that even after controlling for age, gender, income, education, religion, and political ideology, respondents who received either Version 2 or Version 3 corresponded with lower support for welcoming refugees, with the largest negative effect on Version 3.

The data revealed that women and conservatives are less supportive of welcoming refugees and that there is no substantive difference among supporters of Korea’s three main religions: Buddhism, Protestantism, and Catholicism.

Based on preliminary evidence suggesting hostility to Muslim refugees specifically, we wanted further to analyze South Koreans perceptions of Islam by testing whether respondents view Islam as compatible with Korean values. Respondents were randomly assigned to receive one version of the following three questions:

Version 1: Approximately 200,000 people (or 0.2 percent of the population) living in South Korea are Muslim. Do you see Islam as compatible with South Korean values?

Version 2: Approximately 200,000 people (or 0.2 percent of the population) living in South Korea are Muslim, many of whom are ethnic Korean. Do you see Islam as compatible with South Korean values?

Version 3: Approximately 200,000 people (or 0.2 percent of the population) living in South Korea are Muslim, many of whom are foreigners. Do you see Islam as compatible with South Korean values?


Here we see very little variation, despite mentioning ethnicity in Version 2, as over 60 percent in all three groups stated Islam was not compatible. Further analysis shows that women, conservatives, and Protestants correspond with viewing Islam as incompatible. Our second test suggests a deeper concern among South Korean perceptions; that they may not just disapprove of foreigners, or more specifically foreign refugees, but rather Islam itself.

The findings show that regardless of origin, the majority of the South Koreans oppose welcoming refugees. Moreover, the higher support for North Korean refugees may reflect a desire for an ethnically homogenous South Korean society. On top of this, the arrival of Yemeni refugees also coincided with increasing public dissatisfaction stemming from rising unemployment among youth and distrust in the political system.

Our survey also finds that most South Koreans view Islam as incompatible with South Korean values. South Korean perceptions potentially have been shaped by the refugee crisis in Europe compounded by citizens having limited contact with cultural outsiders. The Korean government has promoted multicultural acceptance. For example, lessons about racial purity and blood-based nationhood have been removed from textbooks in recent years.

While xenophobic attitudes play a role in South Koreans opposition to non-Korean and especially Muslim refugees, the circumstances under which these attitudes are nurtured should not be overlooked. The South Korean government needs to take into account the domestic factors that have given rise to economic fear and backlash to accepting refugees. Further research should compare perceptions of Muslim refugees to refugees of other religions as well as test whether these views are different for those who have had direct contact with non-Korean refugees.

Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). Kaitlyn Bison is an honors graduate of Western Kentucky University with a B.A. in both International Affairs and Economics. Aleksandra Kozovic is a graduate of Western Kentucky University with a B.A. in International Affairs and Criminology.

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