Irish missionary priest named ‘Immigrant of the Year’ in South Korea

Columban missionary priest Donal O’Keeffe, 70, has spent more than 40 years working for the recognition of the rights of workers

An Irish missionary priest has been named “Immigrant of the Year” in South Korea for his work with workers in the country’s poor communities.

Columban missionary priest Donal O’Keeffe, 70, has spent more than 40 years working for the recognition of the rights of workers, especially those living in the slums.

The priest arrived in Korea in 1976 when the country was still under military dictatorship.

“This is what struck me the most,” the priest told AsiaNews. “Any type of association was forbidden at the time. The only place where people could meet was in churches,” he said.

Father O’Keeffe dedicated his time with workers who would move from the slums around the city to the industrial districts.

He established an “open house,” a place where workers, some of them still very young, could meet and share problems, dreams, aspirations.

“Most of them had abandoned their studies after middle school. They were people who felt terribly inferior because they had not studied, with very low self-esteem due to social pressures,” he said.

“We started with personal growth programs, created groups where young people could make friends or engage in various activities, from learning to play the guitar to walking in the mountains,” said the priest.

He said that with economic development, new social challenges came. “Poverty has been hidden, but people have become increasingly isolated,” said Father O’Keeffe.

New challenges for South Korea

In recent months, South Korea has been trying to increase its future working population by making it easier for children of foreign residents to become citizens.

Its plans have run into trouble in the face of rising anti-China sentiment.

A measure proposed by the Ministry of Justice — first made public in April — called for easing the pathway to citizenship for children born to long-term foreign residents, by simply notifying the ministry.

A presidential petition opposing the revision has gathered over 300,000 signatures.

The chatroom of an online hearing held to discuss the proposal in May was overwhelmed with expletive-laced complaints by the tens of thousands of viewers.

The justice ministry has said it is still taking into account public opinion and the advice of experts before submitting the proposal to the Ministry of Government Legislation.

“Given the strong backlash, I would say the ministry has already lost much of the momentum to push ahead with the proposal,” said Jang Yun-mi, an attorney who specializes in issues related to children.

The controversy highlights the challenges South Korea faces as it seeks to ensure a robust future population in the face of declining birthrates and rapidly aging workers, and the potential policy implications of increasingly negative views of China, its biggest trading partner.

Residents walk in Seoul’s Chinatown neighborhood on June 16, 2021. (Reuters photo)

Data from last year suggests only about 3,930 people would be eligible under the rule change, but the fact that 3,725 of them were of Chinese heritage prompted much of the criticism.

South Korean views have been colored by what some see as economic bullying by Beijing, its poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and the assertion by some Chinese that dearly held aspects of Korean food and culture have roots in China.

Naturalization was rare in South Korea until the early 2000s — just 33 foreigners gained South Korean citizenship in 2000, for example — but rose to nearly 14,000 last year, immigration data show.

Of them, nearly 58% were from China, and 30% from Vietnam. The rest included people from Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Japan, Korea Immigration Service data showed.

The latest proposal is needed to encourage future workers to stay by allowing them to foster a South Korean identity from an early age and stably get assimilated into society, the justice ministry told Reuters in a statement.

Negative views of China among South Koreans have hit historic highs recently, with as much as 75% having an unfavorable opinion of them late last year, compared to around 37% in 2015, according to Pew Research. – with a report from AsiaNews and Reuters

Related Stories