South Korea Opens Its Arms
Sensitive to having too many outsiders, prosperous Asian countries generally have relied on temporary worker programs — with few rights for migrants — to fill gaps in their labor markets. With its historically diverse population, Singapore is the main exception as it sees migrants as a demographic necessity and courts highly skilled migrants.
For years, South Korea has struggled with a growing unauthorized population composed of workers from other Asian countries who overstayed tourist visas. In addition, South Koreans, particularly in rural areas, have increasingly sought brides from Vietnam, China, and the Philippines, leading to integration challenges.
Issue No. 10 of Top Ten of 2007
Although South Korea has long valued its homogeneous society, its government actively charted a different course in 2007 by acknowledging permanent immigration and the economic importance of immigrants, and literally rolling out the welcome mat.
It declared itself "the leader of embracing foreigners" in a November statement from Choo Kyu Ho, the commissioner of Korea Immigration Service. Choo even said that reaching out to foreigners is in Korea’s founding ideology.
The country topped the 1 million foreigner mark in late August according to South Korea’s Justice Ministry. That number — which includes unauthorized migrant workers and 720,000 residents — represents 2 percent of the total population.
About 65 percent of foreigners live in the Seoul metropolitan area, and 45.5 percent are Chinese although over 40 countries are represented. According to government figures, one out of every four men in rural areas is married to a foreign woman.
The 1 million mark was enough for the government to state in late October that Korea is turning into a "multiracial society." The government expects the foreign population to swell to 1.4 million by 2010, accounting for 2.84 percent of the country’s population.
Civil society has played an important role in changing South Korea’s attitude toward immigrants. In fact, political scientist Timothy C. Lim has written that the community of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focused on migrant worker issues "has become a firmly entrenched and highly credible social force. The community has gradually transformed the issue of migrant labor rights into an issue of fundamental human rights and social justice."
By 2006, as Lim has noted, NGOs had already shifted their attention to the permanent settlement issue. A detention center fire in February that killed nine (eight Chinese nationals and one Uzbek) and injured 18 brought more attention to migrants’ situation, but many substantive changes were already in motion.
Among the South Korean government’s milestone events in 2007:
- passage of laws aimed at protecting migrant workers from abuse and exploitation (effective July 1, 2007);
- a Supreme Court ruling that migrants have the right to organize a labor union regardless of their status;
- free medical checkups to some 6,000 female immigrants married to Korean men;
- a plan to grant skilled foreign manual workers permanent residency;
- a proposed 2008 budget of 22 billion won (about US$24 million) for immigrant support, a 471.8 percent increase over 2007; and
- a Ministry of Justice-sponsored information fair in Seoul where foreigners could get answers about topics including insurance, school enrollment, and injury compensation from representatives of six government ministries.
Whether or not other countries in the region follow South Korea’s lead, the country has started a journey down its own promising path.