South Korea: Migrants and Nationalism
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

South Korea: Migrants and Nationalism


Once a “late comer,” now industrially developed, South Korea has risen to a new position in the global economic hierarchy – from an exporter of migrant labor to an importer. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, something significant happened: South Korea “arrived.” Economic prosperity and rising living standards meant stable, secure, and relatively high paying jobs for many South Koreans. But it also created a labor shortage in the construction, manufacturing, and agricultural sectors. These shortages, coupled with wage increases, hit South Korea’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs) particularly hard. The only way for firms of this size to maintain acceptable profit margins was to hire migrant laborers, who would work more for relatively less. Thus began a labor market and social transformation.

From Peripheral Country to ‘Surrogate Sub-Empire’?

The major labor market changes following “Korea’s rise” have transformed the country from an developing peripheral state to a “surrogate sub-empire” – a country that internalized and now reproduces empire-like practices. An alternative developmental narrative, this is one of the central claims made by Lee Jin-kyung in her book Service Economies: Militarism, Sex Work, and Migrant Labor in South Korea. Her description of this phenomenon is worth quoting: 

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Global labor migration and immigration from periphery to core nations, both of which have accelerated in the past three decades or so, have been understood as phenomena that trace their roots to the history of colonialism, as a postcolonial return of the ex-colonized “back” to the metropole. South Korea represents an interesting variation as a postcolonial location that has moved, only very recently, from a neo-colony whose own migrants’ and emigrants’ “return” was destined for the United States, to a sub-empire to which other ex-colonized peoples of Asia migrate, short of reaching metropoles. 

Indeed, economic growth and development has pushed South Korea (and other “miracle” economies) into a new structural category within the global capitalist economy – one of imported of migrant labor. The transition occurred absent the necessary legal and institutional framework. Demand for migrant labor finds it origins in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 1991 that a formal system was implemented: the Joint Venture Trainee System. Since then, incremental changes and makeshift measures have adjusted and updated the legal and institutional framework, including the implementation of the Industrial Trainee System and the Employment Permit System (EPS).

The EPS, which came into effect after the passage of the 2003 Law Concerning the Employment Permit for Migrant Workers (EPS Act), created an institutional and legal framework for managing and regulating migrant labor. Under this system, the Ministry of Labor issues permits to SMEs (employing fewer than 300 people) to employ persons coming from labor exporting countries with which South Korea has a Memorandum of Understanding.

The legal and institutional framework of the current system does anything but create a fair playing ground for migrant workers. A 2009 Amnesty International report, “Disposable labor: Rights of migrant workers in South Korea,” argues in no uncertain terms that South Korea’s migrant worker population is being badly exploited. Notably, the report looks at the working conditions of legal migrant workers, or those recognized under the Employment Permit System (EPS).

Under current law, workers must obtain permission from the employer to change jobs, can be terminated without cause, and must have their contracts renewed yearly. Many of the country’s new immigrants come to South Korea as migrant laborers to work low-skilled, often hazardous jobs – work commonly referred to as the “3D” professions: dirty, dangerous, and demeaning.

If dirt, danger, and belittlement weren’t enough, migrant workers in South Korea labor for less than “equilibrium price” and sometimes for nothing at all. The Amnesty report notes:

They [migrant workers] are required to work long hours and night shifts, many without overtime pay, and often have their wages withheld. On average, they are paid less than South Korean workers in similar jobs and are at greater risk of industrial accidents with inadequate medical treatment or compensation. [They] are tied to their employer and face restrictions in changing jobs, making them particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation such as unfair dismissal.

A more recent (2014) Amnesty fact-finding mission into the working conditions for the approximately 20,000 farm workers under the EPS shows how bad things really are. It states:

The EPS is heavily loaded in favour of employers, leaving migrants trapped and vulnerable to abuse. Agricultural workers, of which many are migrant workers, are excluded from key legal protections afforded to most of the country’s workforce.

Quoted in the report, Norma Kang Muico, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific migrants’ rights researcher, is unequivocal in her assessment of workers under the EPS, which “leaves migrant workers at the mercy of unscrupulous employers who take advantage of the system’s severe restrictions on migrants’ ability to change jobs.” This relationship has led to severe exploitation. One recent report from Channel NewsAsia, entitled “Migrant workers treated like ‘slaves’ in South Korea’s agricultural industry,” highlights some specific instances of abuse by employers.

Ensuring that migrant labor will “be there” when needed but also easily deposed of when not, the system effectively deterritorializes the migrant labor community by separating it from the rest of the national community, argues Lee in Service Economies. “In calculating their wages, the South Korean state and capital dissimulate that migrant workers’ bodies, work, and life are somehow discontinuous with Korean society and the Korean territory where they are physically located. Their laboring and living bodies and their communities seem to constitute a deterritorialized colony within South Korea […]” writes Lee.

That workers are only permitted to legally stay for three years (with an option to extend, determined by the employer’s willingness to re-hire them) effectively splits the lives of the migrant workers between home and work, or forces those who want to stay to do so illegally, thus putting themselves into extremely precarious positions. Kwon June-hee, in her 2013 Duke University dissertation, Mobile Ethnicity: The Formation of the Korean Chinese Transnational Migrant Class, describes the transnational (Chinese-Korean) migrant class that comes in and out of Korea for work as having “split lives”: Work and home are geographically and mentally distinct locations.

Differentiation doesn’t simply divide the population into two halves (viz. citizens and migrant workers); the individuating state also divides the floating migrant population along ethnic lines, thus creating the conditions for a milieu for competition not only between South Koreans and migrant laborers but also between the different ethnic groups that constitute the migrant worker population. Moreover, the state deliberately draws lines between desired members (Korean-Americans, Chinese-Koreans, North Korean defectors, etc.) and other, non-ethnic Koreans. Through various work opportunities, permanent residency visas, and opportunities for citizenship, the state constructs a racialized hierarchy with ethnic Koreans nearer the top and those of other, less desirable races at the bottom.

While many migrant laborers in South Korea are undocumented, more than 500,000 low-skilled migrant workers live and work in South Korea, most under the EPS. It is quite easy to fly below the radar as an undocumented worker (as many do), but it is disadvantageous to do so. Aside from having basically no recourse to legal remedies in situations of severe abuse, such workers are vulnerable to the more blunt instrument of the state: the police.

Regular raids are made on locations known to house undocumented migrant workers. This may seem, at first, to be an example of direct intervention by the state in the economy. Though not entirely incorrect, it is better understood as the state’s effort to regulate the “reality” in which work takes place. (The act of impacting reality, rather than something more finite, is an insight passed down by Karl Polanyi and, more recently, Michel Foucault.) “Big clean-up operations,” as they are called, “function […] as a strategy of disposing of those who have stayed in Korea for an extended period, that is, over a few years, in order to make room for a new crop of migrant workers – workers more vulnerable and more willing to work for cheaper wages,” writes Lee.

In short, the South Korean state, using the rule of law, practices an intense form of individuation and racialization to create a highly competitive space for migrant labor – a good thing for SMEs. Ironically, the experience of the migrant labor population in South Korea mirrors, in many ways, the experiences of Korean migrant laborers in interwar Japan.

Demographic Changes and the (South) Korean Nation

While the working (and living) conditions for many migrant laborers are substandard, to say the least, there is a silver lining to an otherwise dark cloud. Return migration and the influx of non-Korean immigrants appears to be contributing to an interesting shift in South Korean national identity – from an ethnic-based understandings of “Koreaness” to something more inclusive, perhaps civic-oriented.

This social transformation, if real, is a watershed moment in South Korea’s “modern” history; arguably only once before in its short modern history has race been decoupled from the nation-state. This occurred in the later years of Japan’s imperial period, when, according to Lee, “the state’s effort to multiethnicize and multiculturalize the empire loosened the essentialized linkage between ethnicity and the nation or empire.” Nowadays, due to pressures from migrant labor/immigrant groups and civil society actors “the Korean nation and nationality [has] begun to be delinked from its exclusive attachment to ethnicity. […] Korean identity is being broadened to include plural cultures and multiple ethnicities,” Lee adds.

Lee’s conclusion is corroborated by recent public opinion data and also by active members of South Korea’s civil society. Interestingly, in her assessment, those responsible for redefining South Korean national identity are those who once held a strongly ethicized (re: exclusive) belief of what made one Korean: 386 Generation activists. A recent interview the author conducted with one such person indicates that Lee is indeed onto something.

Lee Gi-young, a student protestor in the 1980s and today a pastor for a Methodist church and manager for education outreach at the War and Women Human Rights Museum, says she regularly comes into contact with non-ethnic Korean migrant laborers. When asked to share her thoughts on whether such people can become part of the Korean national community, she responded: “In my personal opinion, they are already partly included, but because South Korean society’s sense of civic consciousness is so low, they have yet to be fully integrated. South Korea’s geographic isolation and the lingering effects of a closed door policy have made it more difficult more South Koreans to accept foreigners as integral members of society.” What brings them in, so to speak, is their economic contribution – not, notably, their ethnic background. “Foreign workers especially are part of the South Korean national community,” Lee asserts. “Korea cannot go on without them – their labor is needed. This makes them a part of South Korean society.” And for her, civil society has a normative obligation to assist not just Koreans, but all people living and working in the country, because “Of course, it does.”

South Korea in the 21st Century

Postindustrial South Korea is a microcosm of the broader (capitalist) world-economy. Above all else, it underscores the importance of labor as a unique commodity – one that, unlike other commodities, cannot be produced. While industrial capital and its guardian, the state, cannot produce the labor commodity, they can import it. So as to maintain tolerable profit margins, capital must constantly find cheap and disciplined labor. In many advanced industrial economies, like South Korea, migrant labor constitutes this kind of essential labor. A consequence of the labor market and social transformation (perhaps unintended) described above has been a new discourse on the nation and a push to expand the definition of who constitutes the South Korean national community.

While it may be fashionable to speak of the current era as having transcended the parochial political boundaries generated in the 19th and 20th centuries, such claims are more hopeful than true. Clearly, we still live in the age of nations and nationalism. It’s important, however, to recognize that not all nationalisms are the same. There are relatively exclusive (ethnic) and more inclusive (civic) nationalism. And while the latter is not always “good” or “better” than the other (see Canada’s officially recognized “cultural genocide” against the indigenous population as one clear example of a “bad” civic nationalism), exclusivity has clear downsides for social and ethnic outgroups. What’s arguably more interesting, and worth further investigation, is the relationship between the world economy, the state, and the nation, and how this relationship influences the kind of nationalism that emerges in any given society. In South Korea, the intensity of international flows that defines our globalized world may be contributing to the decline of ethnic nationalism in a nation long defined by it.

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