Working in the heart of Seoul where protests usually happen, I’ve seen it so many times, foreigners looking at protests. Now, the protests in Seoul rarely get violent, so it’s a bit of a spectacle for tourists to come and see how protests are in other countries. It makes them seem like they’re seeing an unusual political event aside from the usual touristy fare. Unfortunately, protests here happen at least once a week. They usually interrupt my work on Thursday afternoons.
The recent string of protests that got the president of South Korea impeached however are much larger than regular protests. They’re bigger and are more elaborate affairs, with choreographed light shows and musical entertainment. It can be quite tempting for foreigners to come and see the protests and witness history taking place. But in such cases, there’s a very blurred line between witnessing a government protest and taking part in it.
Several people in Korea have invited me to join them in the protests, and as much a political junkie as I am, it is really not in my place to take part in a protest in a country where I am technically a guest by the government. There’s also some chance of violence erupting, and I’m sure most embassies wouldn’t encourage people to be near the protests. I haven’t heard of anybody being arrested and deported for participating in a government protest, but just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean that it’s okay to do. It also doesn’t mean that the government is not well within their rights to deport any foreign visitors participating in anti-government activities. How would Canada react to foreigners coming in to Canada to protest the government? I would be thinking differently if the issues directly affected foreigners, say Canada decided that all permanent residents (landed immigrants/ non-Canadian residents) must now pay higher taxes than Canadian citizens. But many of the protests I’ve seen where foreigners are wandering into are about issues that don’t really affect them directly.
One of the protests in the past that comes to mind is the mad cow protests several years ago. Koreans didn’t want American beef imports to Korea because of suspected cases of mad cow. Now, this was all just a massive hysteria with a healthy dose of anti-Americanism, but this didn’t stop millions of people protesting in the streets. In these protests, I even saw foreigners participating. Now, I couldn’t tell whether they were Americans or not, but seeing how the country now fully accepts American beef imports with little consequences, not only are the protests a big egg on the face of the Koreans but also to the foreigners who participated. There must be better ways to bond with the locals than joining protests.
The local media however sure loves pointing cameras at visibly foreign faces during news stories. It gives events an international vibe. Perhaps that’s part of the allure. Hey, we might get on TV in Asia!
The thing is foreigners don’t have a dog in the fight, so why go against the country which gave them the privilege to visit? The one time foreigners had an issue to legitimately protest the Korean government was when they made it mandatory for all foreign teachers to pass an AIDS test prior to getting teaching visas in fear of them giving AIDS to school children. That was a horrible piece of racist, xenophobic legislation that didn’t get any protest in the streets, not from locals or foreigners. And to this day, foreign teachers are still taking AIDS tests, some of them believing the lie that it’s for their health insurance.
So what is a foreigner to do? Stay out of it. If you have to be a tourist, take a picture, and spread the story to your friends. Locals love it when their stories reach an audience overseas. Otherwise, know why you’re really here (as a guest) and know why people are protesting (It’s usually not about you).