New Leaders Forum

Korea’s Multicultural Future?

Recent Features

New Leaders Forum

Korea’s Multicultural Future?

With a growing number of migrant workers, can South Korea adapt to a new national identity not based on ethnicity?

The permanent settlement of foreigners is an emerging reality that South Korea is now acknowledging. With over 150,000 migrant wives and over 500,000 migrant workers, the government is scrambling to find a multicultural vision that will prevent looming racial and social discord. But with a fragmented multicultural policy and intergovernmental wrangling, as well as a society that still holds immature views of its supposed ethnic homogeneity, South Korea is facing a future it may not be ready for.

Currently, a third of all marriages occurring in South Korea’s rural areas involve migrant wives—mostly from China and Southeast Asia—who have been matched with South Korean men. An increasing gender imbalance tilting toward males ensures this phenomenon will continue, with jarring implications for the myth of Korean ethnic homogeneity.

In June, the government announced that the number of children with at least one parent of non-Korean heritage reached 150,000 this year, a number that has increased fourfold over the last four years. They are expected to number over 1.6 million by 2020, with a third of all children born that year the offspring of international unions.

Aside from the serious problems of familial and racial discrimination, as well as the high rates of domestic violence already affecting migrant wives, a larger social policy problem brewing is the issue of successfully integrating these children. Due to discrimination, poorer language proficiency, and limited school support, they are facing below national average dropout rates of 20 percent in middle school and 40 percent in high school. This, along with a lack of social capital, suggests these children face a future as the country’s permanent, racialized underclass.

Also involved in South Korea’s multicultural journey are hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from developing countries, some who have been in the country since the early 1990s, when South Korea first opened its labour market. Government policy still limits migrants’ work period to five years, and prohibits migrant workers from ever attaining permanent legal residence, despite South Korea being the most rapidly aging society in the world – and one in the midst of a growing blue collar labour shortage.

The policy is seen as limiting the growth of small and medium-sized companies, also beset with quota restrictions on overseas labour. Moreover, it results in a continuing influx of migrant workers who eventually overstay their visas, becoming de facto permanent residents – rarely unemployed, but living as disenfranchised members of society. Numbers vary widely, but official estimates of illegal foreign residents number over 160,000, with many civic organizations citing the number as higher than 200,000, or more than one-third of the migrant worker population.

Some commentators argue that the threat of impending North Korean collapse, which would open up a significant market of cheap labour, prevents the South from ever granting citizenship to migrant workers. Yet the government is reeling in its efforts to integrate 21,700 North Korean defectors, unfamiliar with the capitalist South, who are plagued with high unemployment rates and near-identical issues of discrimination. Whether they are non-Koreans or North Koreans, the country will need to deal with the same problems of integration. But the longer the two Koreas remain separated, the more difficult the process of unification will be; in the meantime, the migrant worker population will continually increase.

How successfully South Korea handles its marginalized populations will demonstrate not only its ability to achieve a multicultural society, but also a successful model of modernization. The first hurdle is institutional. Despite a modest budget of $84 million, which is a 74-fold increase from five years ago, the government’s immigration system is widely criticized as fragmented. The country’s budget and policy mandates are spread out over 11 different ministries—including justice, labour, and gender equality and family—who wrangle over funds and priorities. During a visit to Seoul this year, International Organization for Migration Director General William Swing stressed the need for a ‘control tower’ or an independent agency that deals coherently with migrant policy and its social, economic, and human rights implications.

The second hurdle is more troubling. Long boastful of its nation’s apparent ethnic homogeneity, such blood-based nationalism rejected the nation’s ethnic Chinese as fellow countrymen and ostracized its half-American ‘mixed-bloods’ from society. No matter how reformed South Korea’s institutions may become, the spectre of institutional racism, excluding those not fully ‘Korean’ from equal opportunities for social and economic advancement, looms.

Still, scholars like Lee Byoung-ha, a Yonsei University researcher of migrant policies, are optimistic. Seeing hope in modern South Korea’s democratic identity, formed through the struggle for their civic rights, he argues that South Koreans see legitimacy in minority groups’ struggles. Eventually, he says, multicultural children will rightfully demand a say in how their country sees itself and how it is run.

Such a shift from a national identity based on ethnicity toward one based on civic values may be the key South Korea needs to unlock a modern, multicultural future.

Faustino John Lim is a graduate of the Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies.