Seoul may allow up to 800 Afghan citizens who are already in South Korea or helped its projects in Afghanistan to live in the country, but is highly sceptical about a US plan to host refugees at its Korean military bases.
Despite being 5,000km away from Afghanistan and having played a relatively minor role in the US-led debacle there, South Korea faces some of the same moral dilemmas after the Taliban takeover of the country. On Tuesday, a senior government official said Seoul is considering allowing some 400 Afghanistan citizens who are currently on South Korean soil to legally stay in the country.
“The government is reviewing granting special residence permits to Afghans residing in the country,” said Justice Minister Park Beom-kye. The minister said the approach will likely be the same as with Myanmar citizens, whose residency permits were extended after a military coup plunged their home country into a crisis earlier this year.
Seoul may also relocate approximately the same number of Afghans, who worked with South Koreans in Afghanistan during the two decades of NATO military presence. Suh Hoon, a senior security adviser to President Moon Jae-in, said on Monday the country had a moral obligation to help out its Afghan allies – mostly construction specialists and health workers – and that evacuating them to South Korea was one of the options being considered.
“Given the August 31 deadline for the withdrawal of American troops, we need to speed up discussions,” the advisor warned the national parliament. However, he expressed opposition against opening the door to a larger number of Afghan refugees, citing public reluctance to welcome them. Suh, a former chief of national intelligence, was referring to the reaction in South Korea to a report that the US may fly-in refugees from Afghanistan and house them at its military bases in the country.
The plan was first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Saturday, with the newspaper explaining that American bases in the Middle East and US were running out of capacity to host the thousands of evacuees. The overflow could also be directed to Japan, Germany, Italy and Kosovo, the report said.
Seoul sent mixed signals in response. On Sunday, Song Young-gil, the chair of the ruling Democratic Party, told reporters that such an operation “has not been discussed with our government” and called the idea not “realistic.” On Monday, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong confirmed to the parliament that the possibility of hosting Afghan refugees on South Korean soil was raised by the Americans, but said the discussion remained “at the very basic level” and never became serious.
The lightning fall of the US-backed government in Kabul over a week ago disrupted the withdrawal plans of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. The Hamid Karzai International Airport became a scene of chaos, desperation and death as thousands of people fearing the Taliban rushed to it in hopes of getting airlifted out of the country.
Amid the sympathy for Afghan asylum-seekers in the West, there is also concern that the mass evacuation may pose a security threat to receiving nations. A person on a no-fly list was reportedly brought into Britain last week.
Meanwhile the Taliban is seeking to further its claim for international legitimacy by reaching out to members of the international coalition that the Islamist militant group successfully chased out of Afghanistan, including South Korea. Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a member of the Taliban’s Cultural Commission, told the Yonhap news agency on Monday that his organization seeks recognition from Seoul, offering a “cordial” relationship and access to natural resources.
“We hope not only to be recognized by Korea but the entire world at large as the legitimate representative government of the people of Afghanistan, who have gained their right of self-determination from a foreign occupation,” the official told the Korean outlet.
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