Injustice requires discretion
My recent application for a visa renewal has brought into sharp focus the cost to be paid for political engagement in Korea and the significant challenges to freedom of speech and expression.
What should have been a routine process – a formality, really – became much more complicated.
In the past when applying for my D-6 missionary visa, I would receive approval virtually on the spot. This time, I was told that my application was “under review.”
It should have come as no surprise, given my involvement in the campaign to oppose the building of a new naval base on Jeju Island.
I waited eight days, having been informed that I would be notified when my presence was required.
The director of the Seoul Immigration Office eventually contacted me, saying he wanted to “discuss matters” at my earliest convenience.
Father Vincent Lee, Columban vice-director of the region, kindly agreed to accompany me to the immigration office.
There the director, with an air of cordiality, laid out a file that contained numerous photographs of me participating in various protest rallies, flash mobs and other gatherings on Jeju Island and in Seoul.
In his friendliest tone, the director suggested that continuing such activities could lead to my deportation.
My anger swelled when the director, in addition to threatening me, adopted a note of condescension in reminding me of my nearly two decades of “good” work in Korea as a missionary and what a pity it would be to throw that all away.
I in turn reminded the director of the reasons for my involvement in the campaign.
I told him that on the very day of our meeting (June 25, which marks the beginning of the Korean War) we were commemorating the approximately 3 million people who lost their lives in that brutal conflict, and that my opposition to the Jeju base was rooted in preventing another war in the region by militarizing the “Island of Peace” which is Jeju.
What concerned me most was not the menacing cordiality or condescension of the director, but the images of me in the file, many of which had red circles around my face.
Perhaps I had now become one of the many victims of the government’s illegal surveillance of its critics. That was alarming in itself, but it also confirmed to me how concerned the government is if they think they need to teach me a lesson.
In June last year, prosecutors announced the results of a three-month investigation into the government’s illegal surveillance of citizens. They found 500 instances but made only three indictments.
The director then gave me a blank sheet of paper and told me to write a memorandum promising not to engage in any additional activities related to the campaign against the Jeju base.
I intentionally wrote a vague statement in English, but the director insisted on a more concrete promise to avoid all “political activity.”
With considerable effort I kept my growing fury in check, knowing that my future in the country depended on the required pledge. I completed the memorandum and the director handed me my registration card, with a 1-year extension instead of the normal 2-year extension.
As I left the immigration office, my thoughts turned to the brave villagers of Gangjeong, the activists and fellow Religious who struggle bravely against daily intimidation, threats and violence at the hands of the state, all in the name of so-called “national security.”
Any thoughts of self-pity vanished as I remembered the much greater threats that face others in their continued opposition to the government.
I believe the campaign has been successful in building international solidarity against the Jeju project, and much credit should be given to the many people and organizations involved, including the Columban Justice, Peace and Integration Creation.
In the meantime, I will devise a more creative and perhaps discreet strategy for my continued involvement in the campaign. That, at least, remains certain. I will indeed continue to be involved.
Fr Patrick Cunningham is Director of Uijongbu Migrant Workers’ Centre in Korea.