March 02, 2022 13:02
Ukrainian expats in Korea have been organizing protests and aid efforts after Russia invaded their home country last week. They are also calling on the Korean government to take more decisive action against Russian aggression.
Around 300 people gathered last Sunday in front of the Russian Embassy to protest against Russia's invasion, carrying signs that said "Stand with Ukraine" and "Stop Putin, Stop War."
Julia Shmuliak, a Ukrainian working for a trade company who has lived in Korea for the last 10 years, was among them. She said the demonstration was one of the several ways she has been trying to help her home country.
"Even though I'm safer in Korea, my friends and family say it's easier for them emotionally to be in Ukraine," Shmuliak said. "I feel so useless and hopeless and devastated." She hopes that the Korean government will takes further action including heavier sanctions against Russia and opening visa-free travel for Ukrainians.
Korea's announcement of sanctions against Russia on Monday came several days after the other countries', and they only encompass weapons and nuclear materials but not non-strategic goods like semiconductors. And while Korea has said it will participate in American and European sanctions against Russia, it has not announced its own sanctions, in contrast to other Asia-Pacific states such as Australia and Japan. Many were critical of Korea's delay in implementing sanctions, as well as of their limited scope.
Korea's delayed action has its roots in the Moon Jae-in administration's policy of "strategic ambiguity," or its attempt to balance its alliance with the U.S. with its diplomatic ties with countries such as China and Russia.
Hunter Martson at Australian National University said, "In terms of sanctions against Russia, Korea may be hesitating because it doesn't see its own interests at stake. You see that with other Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia -- none of them are really lining up to announce sanctions against Russia."
The Justice Ministry has announced that Ukrainians will be allowed to stay in the country until the situation in Ukraine stabilizes, regardless of their visa status. The visas of some 538 of the 3,843 Ukrainians in Korea expire by June. But Ukrainians still require a visa to enter Korea in the first place. Shmuliak said she hopes that the Korean government suspends this rule and opens to Ukrainian refugees since the Korean Embassy in Ukraine is no longer operating.
Darya Chemeris, a Ukrainian who has lived in Korea for the last five years, said she is the only child of elderly parents back home. When news came out that Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine, she tried to bring her parents to Korea, but they were unable to complete the visa application in time.
"So now the only way I can bring them here is through another country's Korean embassy," she said. "But I'm not sure if it's possible for my parents, who are in their 70s, to figure it out."
Ukrainians in Korea are also organizing their own fundraising efforts. Volodymyr Kadyrlyeyev, who has lived in Korea since 2008, has been collecting donations to send to Ukraine. "... I checked my Facebook just as usual, to see that Ukraine had been invaded," Kadyrlyeyev said. "It didn't seem real."
The fundraising effort was one way to try to help his country from across the world, he added. As of Monday the effort had raised more than W10.5 million (US$1=W1,204). Shmuliak has also been sharing information about how to donate to the Ukrainian armed forces.
Ukrainians will be leading protests in front of the Russian Embassy every Sunday until Russia ends its invasion. Shmuliak says she hopes Korea remembers its own history of occupation by Japan as it considers how to respond to the invasion.
Perhaps in part because of this history, many Koreans are rallying around the Ukrainian cause. Among the donations Kadyrlyeyev received was one from a young Korean man who recently started working and donated his first bonus and included a hand-written letter in Ukrainian, Kadyrlyeyev said.
Journalist Choi Joon-suk also donated W100,000 to support Ukrainian refugees, saying, "Russia should stop the aggression and withdraw immediately."
While last Sunday's protest was attended mostly by Ukrainians, Koreans NGOs also organized their own protest. Representatives of around 400 NGOs gathered in front of the Russian Embassy to protest the Russian invasion on Monday afternoon, chanting "No war in Ukraine."
"We strongly stand in solidarity with all people living in Ukraine's territory and support the people of Russia who are against the war," the protestors wrote in a statement. "Korean civil society calls for peace and stands in solidarity with people around the world who are against this war."
Koreans also rallied against a comment made by Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, in a TV debate last week. Lee called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a "novice leader" and sounded as if he was blaming him for the invasion. "In Ukraine, a novice politician of six months became president and declared Ukraine's accession to NATO, which provoked Russia and eventually led to a clash," Lee claimed.
People from both sides of the political spectrum criticized Lee, including liberal commentator Chin Jung-kwon. "While the international community is watching the tragedy taking place in Ukraine, you, desperate to get votes, are blind to it," Chin wrote on Facebook.
Shmuliak said she hopes that Koreans will continue to take action against Russia's invasion, and that the government will enact stronger policies. "I always intended to go back to my country after studying and working in Korea," Shmuliak said. "Now I worry that there will be no country to go back to."
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