Citizens and Strangers

Part 4: Chulwoo Lee -- South Korea's Migration Transition 

Interviewed by: Eo-Jean Kim (Meridian 180)     Interviewed on: October 4, 2014

Chulwoo Lee is Professor of Law at Yonsei University Law School in Seoul, Korea, where he teaches sociology of law, citizenship and migration, and related courses. His areas of academic interest include law and social theory, social history of law, and citizenship and nationhood. Among his latest publications are “Citizenship, Nationality, and Legal Status” (The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, 2013) and “How Can You Say You’re Korean? Law, Governmentality and National Membership in South Korea” (Citizenship Studies, 2012). Chulwoo Lee is conducting comparative research of the legal forms of ethnizenship and diaspora engagement, and is currently leading a book project on immigration law in Korea. He also chairs the Immigration Policy Advisory Board of the Ministry of Justice, Government of Korea.

1. In recent decades, migrant populations in Korea have increased dramatically. According to the South Korean government, there are currently over 1.5 million foreigners in the country. The OECD has also reported that there are about 1.12 million long-term foreigners in the country. Could you please describe the main forces leading up to this demographic change?

South Korea’s “migration transition” – transformation from an emigration country to a net immigration country – began in the late 1980s. The coming of ethnic Koreans from China foreshadowed a rapid increase in the influx of migrants. Workers from Southeast Asia began to enter the Korean labor market in the early 1990s. Migrant workers, both skilled and less-skilled, did not exceed 70,000 in 1993, the year when the “industrial trainee” system was introduced. Eighty percent of them were undocumented. Now there are over 700,000 migrant workers, including an estimation of 190,000 unauthorized workers. Professionals and skilled workers make up a little over 8 percent of the 0.6 million foreign workers with working visas (including 70,000 overstayers), while guestworkers from Asian countries recruited through the Employment Permit system account for 43 percent. They are often outnumbered by coethnic guestworkers from China recruited through the Working Visit program. Marriage migration is also another significant form of immigration. Whereas marriages between citizens and foreigners made up only 1.2 percent of total marriages in 1990, more than one out of ten marriages were between citizens and foreigners during the period between 2004 and 2010. Whereas the majority of transnational marriages were between citizen women and foreign men in the early 1990s, this pattern was reversed in 1995, as an increasing number of women from developing Asia married Korean men and migrated to Korea through programs run by commercial brokers. Now marriages between citizen men and foreign women are two to three times as frequent as those between citizen women and foreign men. As of the end of 2013, 151,000 foreigners were reported to possess the few types of immigrant status available to the spouses of citizens. Another 84,000 spouses of citizens had been naturalized. Thus guestworkers and marriage migrants from Asia are the biggest immigrant groups. (What is meant by an immigrant here does not have the same meaning as an immigrant in US immigration law.)

China is the biggest source country of immigrants in Korea. Yet a very large percentage of the Chinese immigrants are ethnic Koreans (chaoxianzu in Chinese, joseonjok in Korean). Korean-Chinese account for over 50 percent of all guestworkers and almost 60 percent of all foreign spouses of citizens. Hence the expansion of the migrant population in South Korea has been very much due to ethnic return migrations, although this tendency is in decline.

These migration patterns are products of demographic, political and economic changes in Korean society and circumstances surrounding Korea. Aging and change in the economic structure brought about labor shortages in certain job sectors, which created demand for foreign labor and helped to develop positive rationales for liberalizing immigration policy. The post-Cold-War political change and instrumentalist discourses about globalization and transnationalism precipitated engagement with the ethnic diaspora, which helped to create routes of ethnic return migration.

2. How has the Korean society reacted to these demographic changes? What is your assessment on the legal and policy reactions to these changes? Could you comment on your sense of societal perceptions of migrants' growing presence in Korea?

In 1993, South Korea introduced the so-called “industrial trainee” system modelled on the Japanese practice. I wonder if it is right to say it was a reaction to the demographic change, although it was a response to the labor market pressure for cheap foreign labor and to the concomitant increase of undocumented migrant workers. “Trainees” were invited according to quotas allocated to countries in Asia, and distributed to small businesses in shortage of labor. This system turned out to be a failure, as many trainees broke away from the scheme and joined the undocumented labor pool. In the face of widespread exploitations and human-rights abuses, judicial decisions demolished the premise on which the system was based, the premise that the trainee was not a worker under the labor law and Korea did not import foreign workers. A guestworker system was contemplated as an alternative, and the Employment Permit system was implemented in 2004. Small businesses in a limited number of areas are given permits to employ workers from a pool of foreign workers selected from sending countries on the basis of their intergovernmental agreements with the Korean government. The guestworker is given a “non-professional employment” visa (E-9) that allows him/her to stay in Korea for three years, which can be extended to a maximum of four years and ten months.

The other guestworker system, namely the Working Visit program, has developed separately. Concern for coethnics had underlain the policy toward migrant workers from the beginning. A larger quota was given to Korean-Chinese in inviting industrial trainees. A sub-type of the family-reunification visa (F-1) was devised to meet the demand of Korean-Chinese for opportunities to work in South Korea. Furor against the preclusion of the coethnics in China and the former Soviet Union from the scope of the Overseas Koreans Act and continuing campaigns following the Constitutional Court’s decision that the law was contrary to the constitutional principle of equality led to the inclusion of all diaspora groups into the scope of the Overseas Koreans Act. Subsequently, a special arrangement was made for less-skilled coethnic workers from China and the former Soviet Union to work in a wider spectrum of sectors than E-9 visa holders. Those coethnic workers are given a special visa (H-2), which allows the holder to work in 38 job areas for a period of three years, which can be extended to four years and ten months. This special scheme came into force in 2007 and unexpectedly became a more expansive route for labor migration.

The introduction of the Working Visit program in parallel with the Employment Permit system, which had been expected to be the backbone of the foreign-worker policy, shows that South Korea’s immigration policy has evolved in response to various, unrelated forces without a consistent blueprint. The sociologist Hye-Kyung Lee has published an interesting article showing how client politics surrounding different government ministries has contributed to the liberalization of immigration policy in South Korea. The so-called “multicultural family policy” is another example. It is a product of competition between government ministries, NGO politics, and academic discourse. Initially a euphemism for families from transnational marriages, “multicultural families” have become the dominant target of policymaking thanks to campaigns by NGOs, opinion-making by academics, and the efforts of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family to occupy a new bureaucratic territory. While this has contributed to enhancing the protection of marriage migrants, it has had the effect of making “multicultural family policy” upstage other important areas that demand serious policy consideration. The misnomer “multicultural policy” has become a synonym for immigration policy, but with “multicultural families” at the center of concern. Care and support programs for multicultural families are often criticized for their unintended consequence of otherizing them.

Thanks to vigorous efforts to improve immigration law and policy over the past years, South Korea is faring relatively well in immigration policy assessments. For example, it scored 60/100 in the MIPEX (Migrant Integration Policy Index) III assessment based on its August 2012 records. While this score means the country is “slightly favorable” in respect of immigrant integration, it ranks South Korea 13th among the 36 MIPEX III countries comparable at the time of the assessment. The country fared far better than Japan, once its model in many respects, and scored higher than Germany. South Koreans may be boastful that their country gives voting rights to permanent residents in local elections, which Germany doesn’t under its current constitutional law and Japan refuses to do even without constitutional constraint. South Korea’s “fair” performance, however, particularly in comparison to many European countries, owes much to the small size of the migrant population. Moreover, MIPEX is more about formal laws and policies than about real practice.

The attitude of the Korean public towards immigration and immigrants is also said to be relatively positive. Opinion polls show that Koreans are quite tolerant toward foreigners and immigrants. One of the rationales explaining their positive attitude is that immigrants help to strengthen the economy and make it more competitive. We find a correlation between this attitude of the public and the government’s rhetoric and rationales in explaining its immigration policy. The South Korean government has approached the immigration question from a neoliberal perspective combined with some sort of “competitiveness nationalism.” It emphasizes the borderlessness of global capitalism on the one hand and, on the other, the need to entice talented people in order to make the economy competitive as well as the benefit of having young immigrants in a rapidly aging society. This line of discourse has been particularly conspicuous since the beginning of the Lee Myung-bak presidency. The conservative government of the last eight years has introduced policies and programs that give investors, professionals, highly skilled workers and talented persons privileges in residence and citizenship. Interestingly, there is little popular antipathy to this approach. On the other hand, opinion polls show that the public has more negative attitudes towards guestworkers and marriage migrants. Racial bias is also widespread in the treatment of foreigners. MIPEX III has revealed that South Korea has insufficient legal protections against racism.

South Korea is now at a crossroads in immigration policy. The sustainability of the guestworker system is being questioned. As the German experience of the 1970s suggests, it is turning out to be enormously difficult to send guestworkers back to their home countries. To induce them to leave the country, the South Korean government promised to reinvite them for another maximum stay of four years and ten months. Permanent settlement will be inevitable after that period. Human-rights pressure will make it difficult to deny them family reunification, and chain migrations will follow. This will subject Korean society to similar challenges to those European immigration countries have experienced.

3. In your view, do the current realities surrounding the questions of "citizenship" and migration present any critical issues or challenges to the Korean society? If so, how should the Korean society deal with these issues or challenges?

That Korea is a divided nation cherishing the goal of reunification makes the problem of citizenship enormously complex. South Korea receives a growing number of people who flee North Korea. The constitutional principle that North Koreans are citizens of the Republic of Korea is a baseline in treating those people, but this principle cannot explain the diverse situations of North Korean “escapees” and inconsistent practices of the South Korean government. Other countries are also confused when they have to decide what to do with North Koreans, in particular whether to recognize them as refugees.

As we’ve seen, ethnic return migrations form a large percentage of migrations to Korea. South Korea’s immigration policy has inevitably been intertwined with its diaspora policy. To what extent South Korea should take into account Korea’s divided nationhood and transnational nationhood in molding its immigration policy is a serious question.

As I mentioned, questions that many immigration countries are facing or have faced, such as what to do with the guestworker system, trouble South Korea and require urgent decisions. There is huge pressure from Asian labor-sending countries for the expansion of labor import, including domestic labor and care work. South Korea faces the dilemma between giving limited chances of full family immigration and offering broader chances for fixed-term rotating migrant labor, which Daniel A. Bell and Nicola Piper highlighted in rationalizing Singapore’s and Hong Kong’s policies regarding the import of domestic helpers. In approaching such issues, the people and the government of South Korea need to recognize the significance of human-rights concerns, which are often sidelined in favor of a neoliberal policy orientation and a “national competitiveness” ideology.