One of the most delightful moments of this World Cup so far has to be the brief, ecstatic alliance that was formed between Mexico and South Korea after the latter beat Germany, the defending champions, 2-0. At the time, fans of Mexico’s team had been busy mourning the fact that their loss to Sweden meant they were almost certainly out of the running. Then, news came that Korea had beat the odds, eliminating Germany in the group stage for the first time since 1938 — and sending Mexico through.
At which point the most joyous mayhem broke loose among Mexican fans around the world.
Soon after the game, the Wikipedia page for the South Korean goalie, Cho Hyun-Woo, was edited to call him “The Mexican Saviour” and “The One True God.” Videos surfaced of Mexican fans lifting seemingly random Koreans onto their shoulders and chanting “Korea! Korea!” A group of ecstatic fans stormed the South Korean embassy in Mexico City and cheered as the consul general did a shot of tequila. Streams of BTS, South Korea’s most popular boy band, reportedly skyrocketed in iTunes Mexico that day. All because the Korean soccer team had won their game and — because of the sometimes-strange math of the group stage — gotten knocked out in the process. (Mexico was sadly eliminated in the next round, after losing 2-0 to Brazil.)
It’s dangerous, of course, to draw conclusions about complex geopolitics based on the outcomes of a soccer game. But it seemed to me that the images of gleeful solidarity between Mexican and Korean fans showed a tiny glimpse of what real solidarity could look like between these two groups of people. Maybe it was the way the chants of “Coreano, hermano, ya eres Mexicano!” (“Korean, brother, you are Mexican now”) followed the same rhythm as the ubiquitous movement chant “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (“The people united will never be defeated”). In any case, I couldn’t help thinking about that other thing Koreans and Mexicans have in common: how profoundly our lives have been shaped by two of the most heavily guarded international borders in the world.
Whether it’s siblings who haven’t seen each other for 60 years, or children lost in the maze of immigration detention, the forced separation of families is a cruelty built into the border’s design.
The videos of soccer fan love were a balm for the spirit during a week of bad news for immigrants. At the top of the headlines were the thousands of children who remain in detention centers, separated from their parents while crossing the border to flee (American-manufactured) poverty and violence in their home countries. Meanwhile, officials from North and South Korea recently announced that the two countries would hold a temporary reunion this August of a small group of families divided by the Korean War in 1950-53. Like Korean and Mexican World Cup interests, these news stories are not as different as they might seem. Whether it’s siblings who haven’t seen each other for 60 years or children lost in the maze of immigration detention, the forced separation of families is a cruelty built into the border’s design.
And the United States has thrown a lot of money and resources into enforcing both the U.S.-Mexico border and the Demilitarized Zone. The U.S. Border Patrol has an annual budget of about $3.8 billion, a more than ten-fold increase since 1993, and ICE funding has ballooned to $6.1 billion a year. Meanwhile, 28,500 American troops are currently stationed in South Korea (though that number is looking likely to drop if current trends continue). Both borders, too, have deadly consequences. Last year, 412 migrant deaths were recorded on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border, while thousands of North Koreans have been killed in a rigidly isolationist regime which its citizens cannot safely leave. Within the United States, racism and xenophobia continue to affect the way Latinx and AAPI people move through the world, even if the tenor of nativism looks different depending on its target.
So what does real solidarity look like? What’s the political equivalent of the superimposed Korean and Mexican flags I saw all over my timeline after that game?
It’s important to note, first, that this is far from the first instance of Koreans and Mexicans showing each other love. In the American context, the Korean taco trucks of Los Angeles might first come to mind as another example of cultural meshing between these two groups. And, like that example, the outcome of this World Cup game could be dismissed as purely symbolic, a performance of solidarity that doesn’t yield any real political results. Certainly, neither fusion food nor sports fandom will abolish ICE or denuclearize the Korean peninsula—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t deeply significant common alignments at their heart. After all, Los Angeles is home not just to Korean tacos but also to spaces like the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, one of the few community organizations in the country that organizes Korean and Latinx workers side by side. Moments like the Korean World Cup game might seem small, but they can point us to larger movements that can lead to our collective liberation.
Korean Americans and other AAPI people should continue to draw connections between our struggles and those of Latinx migrants, especially the ways in which American imperialism affects us. We should fight for the rights of all immigrants in our communities to live with dignity, whether that means organizing in support of Mexican employees in Korean restaurants, or fighting deportation alongside Cambodian American families affected by the Repatriations Agreement. We should support the amazing efforts by groups such as the International Women’s Network Against Militarism, which leads campaigns to decrease military presence in Korea, Okinawa, Guahan, Hawaii and elsewhere. And we should continue to decry the injustices at the U.S.-Mexico border and demand that migrant families be released and reunited. Koreans, like many communities of color, know the pain of family separation, and we should use this understanding to fuel our resistance to current injustices.
Solidarity means you don’t stop at what’s good for you, but instead use the knowledge from your own struggle to fight for others’.
In Seoul earlier this summer, I was dismayed to hear a number of Koreans I spoke with saying that their opinion of Trump had improved because of his summit with Kim Jong Un and other North Korean officials in Singapore. Make no mistake: though the movements toward reunification of the Korean peninsula are hugely historic, the Trump administration isn’t any less terrible for holding that summit. Rather than applaud Trump, Korean Americans should demand that similar steps be taken to demilitarize the U.S.-Mexico border and decriminalize its crossing. Solidarity means you don’t stop at what’s good for you, but instead use the knowledge from your own struggle to fight for others’. It means recognizing that they are, in fact, the same fight.
It’s safe to say the fan celebration would have taken a different tone if Mexico had advanced because South Korea had knocked out another underdog team like Senegal or Iran. In some ways, the Mexican fans weren’t only celebrating being able stay in the competition, but that a little team from the Asian Football Confederation had stood up to a Western superpower. And for Korean fans, that meant that the game wasn’t a loss just because we didn’t move forward. Korea put on a great show — and gained an ally. As the World Cup draws to a close — with all European teams left, of course — I want our communities to hold on to the wisdom of that moment. It feels good to be called "brother" in someone else's language. Now let's work on returning the favor.