It is the feeling of being cornered, being spotted in a crowd for no specific reason. Perhaps it is the color or the different accent that cannot be left unnoticed. However, this segregation to the new members of the Korean society in a box called ‘multicultural’ perhaps is the highest form of discrimination. Labeling immigrants, or anyone at that, brands them of their place in the society, placing them just in the outskirts of social circles. With it, they are left to fend for themselves, living as a stranger in a place they now call ‘home’. What are the factors that create the gap between Koreans and immigrants? In what ways can we address the changing demographics of the Korean society?
Rapid Increase in Numbers
The term ‘multiculturalism’ became a buzzword in 2005 with the rapid increase of immigrants to the country. According the Ministry of Justice, as of June 2013, the number of foreigners living in Korea has surpassed 1.5 million, meaning that in every 100 Koreans, there are 3 foreigners. Consider that there about 400,000 foreigners in 1990s which doubled in 2003 at around 700,000, the recent statistics significantly tells us that Korea has been a magnet for foreigners.
Out of the 1.5 million, only 260,000 became naturalized. This means that less than 20 percent of the foreign population will be staying in Korea indefinitely and the rest of the population will be setting foot elsewhere after a short period of time. Creating an inclusive society for immigrants who will stay in Korea temporarily might seem inefficient in the eyes of the public. This perception impairs those who have embraced Korean citizenship in their quest to play an active role in the society.
While the increase of foreigners has been very rapid, the history of migration has been there ever since. The long history between Korea and its neighboring countries in East Asia, particularly China, has formed vibrant migrant communities that have been contributing to the economic and social development of the country. Currently, 50 percent of the immigrants in Korea are Chinese, including ethnic Koreans from China. They top every classification of foreigners in the country ranging from short-term working visas, study visas, marriage migration, among others. It was only around 1980s that Korea accepted foreign labor, thus diversifying the migrant population. This means that migration has been there already, but it is only in the recent years that it has been discussed in public.
Migrants in the Korean Perspective
In an interview, Lee Mi-jeong, research fellow at the Korea Women’s Development Institute, explains that various factors affect the seeming detachment of Koreans to the foreigners in the country, one of which is idea of Korea being a homogenous society. “Korea wants to emphasize its homogenous characteristic instinctively as a reaction to survive among its strong neighbors.” In addition, Lee adds, it has only been in the recent years that Korea has enjoyed economic providence, which magnetized foreign migration. “Given the difficult history, accepting foreigners can be a big change to Koreans.”
However, we should not discount the fact that Koreans have been migrants to other countries as well. Seeking better lives, many Koreans have left the country and have established their own communities abroad. The Korean Diaspora shows us that Koreans have experienced the same hardships that migrants to Korea have been experiencing now. Their experience teaches us that aiding the migrant population to become an active part in the society provides a sustainable development option for the future generations. Unless Korea acts collectively in the near future, the potential that migration to Korea has cannot be utilized to the fullest.
A New Era for Korea
Korea has developed into an economic powerhouse that has gained the attention of the world. However, the rapid development that the country has experienced has created repercussions including aging population, low birth rate, and lack of workers in the labor force among others. The increase of foreigners to Korea does not only provide cultural diversity but real solutions to the problems that the Korean society has been facing. Creating an inclusive society that embraces the foreign population can serve for the higher benefit of everyone, a win-win situation that will finally push Korea to a new era.