A revised version of this blog can be found HERE in the Wall Street Journal Asia (WSJ, June 11, 2013), Korea’s Immigration Problem
Seoul needs newcomers to boost its economy and birth rate. But will they stay?
Today, the number of foreigners (non-Korean nationals who reside in the country for over three months) in South Korea stands at nearly 2.5 percent (1.25 million) of the total population, a relatively small percentage, but one that represents a significant increase in just the past few years. This is a broad category that includes migrant workers, business executives, English teachers, and foreign brides, to name a few. Of such group, foreign brides are playing a pivotal role in the changing demographic landscape of modern day South Korea. In the past when marriages with foreigners were near non-existent, today such marriages account for approximately 14 percent (26, 274, in 2010) of all marriages in the country.
Of such marriages, nearly a fifth of every marriage in South Korea’s rural areas now are “international marriages”–often in the form of a marriage between a Korean male with an “imported” foreign bride, typically from Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and the Philippines. Many of these countries have or have tried to place restrictions in one form or another on marriages with male Korean grooms due to mounting evidence of marital problems based largely on cultural clashes between the foreign bride and her Korean groom and the groom’s greater family unit. As is apparent, such marriages are not just a cultural issue, but an economic one as well–both the bride (often from an economically disadvantaged family in a lesser developed Asian country) and the groom (often a rural farmer) each represents the unfortunate lower end of their nation’s economic social class.
Now what happens when such winds of demographic change meet head on with centuries old Confucian values-based South Korea? As many Korea insiders already know, behind the country’s “hardware” of ultra-modern landscape, hip music videos, and trendy electronics that many on the outside associate with modern Korea, is a country’s “software” that can at times still resemble the “Hermit Kingdom” of old mentality, in which foreigners are met with suspicion, fear, and uber-nationalistic tendencies.
The children of South Korea’s emerging multiracial cultural class, who numbered 151,154 in 2011, are also facing unwanted discrimination, both innocent and less-than-innocent, at school by peers and within the nation’s greater homogenous societal fabric. In a recent poll of multiracial students by the National Human Rights Commission, 41.9 percent of those surveyed stated that they have been teased or discriminated against by their fellow Korean classmates for their inability to pronounce Korean words properly. 25.3 percent also encountered discrimination due to just their skin color being different generally, and darker specifically, than that of the typical Korean. This should come as little surprise. In a recent late 2012 survey by the Korea Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, 88.6 percent of Korean adults responded that Korean blood ancestry was important to be recognized as a Korean. In a report issued by Ernst & Young several days ago, Korea’s globalization ranking slipped due in part to its extremely low cultural integration score of 2.62 (out of 10).
What do all these cultural and demographic changes mean for South Korea? In Japan, when Korean-Japanese were overtly discriminated against and not accepted into mainstream society (in which Japanese citizenship is only given based on blood lineage), a certain fraction of such mistreated cultural class turned to underground activities for economic sustenance. Even in places like Sweden and France known for their relative acceptance and assimilation of immigrants, recent cultural clashes have emerged. And of course, in the U.S. case, overt and invidious racial discrimination based on race and skin color, among other things, have led to economic disparity, a sense of social injustice, and urban riots, with vestiges still remaining today, despite having Barack Obama in the Oval Office.
Contemporary South Korea is not at the racial boiling point yet. But it’s not far away either. If anything, South Korean society today is akin to the U.S. of the late 1950s Organization Man era on the verge of entering the early 1960s Beatnik era. While soon thereafter, South Korea’s unprecedented tectonic shifts in demographics and culture will challenge South Korea’s core social dynamics.
If the Park Geun-hye administration is willing to face this burgeoning socio-economic issue head on, it will act to pre-emptively and strategically incorporate such emerging cultural diversity into strengths through a plethora of social support programs in the form of educational subsidies and support programs. Such efforts would reflect President-elect Park’s campaign theme of “economic democratization,” and would convert South Korea’s diversity into a strength. After all, with a focus on creative industries, a shrinking workforce, low fertility rates, and a rapidly aging society, South Korea needs all hands on deck—no matter the cultural background—to keep the Korean economy afloat and strong in the twenty-first century.
Asia-Pacific Global Research Group