[Voice] Is immigration at sustainable levels?
With the foreign population at 3 percent of the total ...
Published : Mar 25, 2013 - 19:45
Updated : Mar 25, 2013 - 19:45
Immigration implies change. The question for policymakers and citizens alike is what and how fast this change should be. The arrival of immigrants in large numbers to Korea since the 1990s has brought previously unseen diversity to the country’s racial and cultural makeup. The number of foreign residents has risen sharply, from about 300,000 in 2002 to about 1.2 million last year. Foreigners now comprise an unprecedented ― yet modest by developed country standards ― 3 percent of the population. It has been estimated that foreigners will make up 10 percent of the population by 2050.

Gauging just what constitutes a sustainable level of immigration is not only difficult but entirely subjective. The government currently only limits the issuance of two types of visa: the E-9 non-professional employment visa, which goes to the citizens of 15 Asian countries, and the H-2 working holiday visa, for ethnic Koreans.
Foreign migrant workers study Hangeul in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province. (Yonhap News)

“We are carrying out the five-year policy for foreign residents. As for the second period from 2013 to 2017, we will continue to attract overseas students or talented professionals, but we do not have a specific number yet,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice told The Korea Herald.

“We have the Employment Permit System to control the simple labor force from foreign countries, but we do not have a specific quota for talented professionals. Moreover, international marriage might cause an unexpected increase in the number, but according to the latest trend it is not likely to happen. Therefore, it is possible to roughly estimate the inflow of foreigners.”

Open-door policy

The spokesman, who said the ministry was implementing an “open-door policy” to “help revitalize the economy,” added that the ministry had no position on what would be an ideal level of immigration.

“It is a very controversial issue. Currently the government does not hold any official statement about the appropriate number of immigrants.”

Korean attitudes toward immigration appear to be decidedly mixed. In a 2006 survey of attitudes carried out by the Korean Information Agency, 56.5 percent of respondents said they would object to their son or daughter marrying a foreigner. In another survey carried out the same year by Ewha Womans University professor Uh Soo-young, 40 percent of respondents said they would not want an immigrant for a neighbor. A more recent survey by Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs carried out last year showed that 64 percent of the public had concerns about social unrest as the number of immigrants grew. Almost 73 percent of respondents to the 2006 KIA survey, on the other hand, were receptive toward foreign workers having the same rights as their Korean counterparts.

Park Kyung-tae, a sociology professor at Sungkonghoe University who specializes in immigration and race, said that the public is generally accepting of current immigration trends, but that attitudes could change as the foreign-born population grows.

“A rapid increase of foreign people residing in Korea is acceptable just yet,” said Park. “The reasons are migrant wives come in need of Korean men and most migrant workers’ job fields do not overlap with those of Koreans. However, when the job fields do overlap, people will think the immigrants are ‘too many’ or (immigration is) ‘too fast.’”

Other observers, however, see the championing of multiculturalism as coming largely from sectors of society that will not have to face any of the possible negative consequences in the years ahead.

Striking a balance

“These days people are saying ‘da munhwa’ (multiculturalism) is the ultimate solution (to deal with the low birth rate and future labor shortage) so we have to accept the immigrants,” said Kim Hye-soon, a professor of sociology at Keimyung University in Daegu. “I think that is the logic of the employers because they can keep the wages low. When the immigrants give social and economic burden 10 years later or five years later, then the current government leaders, they don’t mind, because that’ll be the next term (of office).”

Referring to what she called the “dilemma of liberal states” that have competing interests, Kim said that Korea would have to strike a balance between meeting its international obligations to allow the movement of people and protecting its interests.

“They claim that they are liberal states (so) then they have to accept this international flow of people. But they have their own country to govern … so if people are coming from less developed countries so much, then it is a burden to that country and the people. Then the state has to consider how much we have to accept people and how much we have to protect (our own interests).”

Kim said that one challenge for integrating immigrants was the relative lack of knowledge about Korean culture worldwide. Compared with migrants to Western countries, she said, arrivals to Korea were less prepared for the change.

“If you are to move to the U.S. or European countries, people were raised with education and mass media always spreading European and American values,” she said. “Although we have the Korean Wave, it is selective; once they (immigrants) come to Korea they find it is really different.”

Lee Sang-lim, a researcher at Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, said that increasing conflict between Koreans and foreign residents could be a problem in the years to come.

“I think that the conflicts between foreigners staying in Korea will get serious as the number of them increases,” said Lee. “Korean society has long had a homogeneous culture without any huge influx of foreigners in its history. So it appears not to hold a strong stance against racism and has difficulty adopting different cultures.”

Civil society

Lee added that increased competition for work between locals and foreign-born residents could become a source of tension in the future.

“Many foreigners staying in Korea are involved in low-paying physical labor or are marriage immigrants. They are likely to compete for jobs with domestic workers and are in need of welfare benefits. Living conditions in areas where many of them are living are deteriorating.”

Lee said that while it was difficult for the government to arrive at an optimal immigration level, it was important that immigration policy was not considered simply as a matter of labor supply.

“Immigration policies should be made after considering economic effect, job competition, changes in the number of illegal immigrants, living conditions and public opinion. Tackling immigrant problems should be regarded as part of our population policy rather than labor policy.”

Not everyone is pessimistic about the prospects for a cohesive society. Park, who believes that the passage of an anti-discrimination law as well as a change in attitudes is “vital,” said that the strength of Korean civil society was reason to be hopeful.

“I am optimistic about the situation for we have a ‘sound civil society,’” said Park. “As long as we maintain the strength of civil movements for democracy, I will continue to support multiracial culture.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)

Intern reporters Choi In-jeong, Jin Eun-soo and Lee Ah-ran contributed to this article. ― Ed.

Readers’ voice

Revising SOFA ...

Your article “Should the SOFA be revised?” (March 19) deserves credit for contrasting various points of view. I think the government officials got it right, but the so-called critics of the SOFA present emotionally tainted and biased evidence for their objections that wither in the full light of objective assessment.

Yang Uk claimed that the reason why the SOFA regulation is different from Japan and Germany is that the U.S. “could not believe (in) our judicial system back then.” The historical realities are a good deal more complex.

A review of events culminating in the U.S.-Japan Administrative Agreement, the NATO SOFA and the later-in-time U.S.-Japan SOFA show that because of certain historical accidents of timing, the criminal jurisdiction process set out in the language of the U.S.-Japan SOFA is atypical and does not track that found in modern SOFAs.

However, the close cooperative relationship between the authorities of the U.S. and Japan has resulted in an actual practice more akin to that under modern SOFAs than a mere reading of the language would lead one to believe. (See Japan case study in The Handbook of the Law of Visiting Forces, 2001, Deter Fleck.)

It’s been my experience that lawyers hold opinions on every subject, legal and otherwise, but how does the capacity for opinion anoint Choi Seung-hwan to hand down judgments on a presumed lack of commitment U.S. military command authorities have to control American soldiers or make a compelling case for his wish that the American government fear the Korean population? Alliances are not sustained by fear but rather mutual respect and shared values.

Choi was quoted, “In the field of environmental pollution … according to my research, the U.S. government respects Germany’s domestic regulations. If environmental pollution takes place, the American government rapidly takes effective measures to prevent the pollution and pay compensation.”

Once again, reality is more complex. SOFA terms in Korea and Japan are not like Germany: The U.S. is not required to restore the land and the host government (in Korea or Japan) is not required to compensate the U.S. for any improvements.

In 2007, then-Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon explained to the National Assembly why bases were returned to Korea without further U.S. environmental remediation: Although U.S. Forces pay the cost of environmental remediation for bases returned (in Germany), there is no additional budget spent as the cost is offset by the money from selling U.S. military facilities (this is known as residual value).

The Japanese government pays the entire cost of environmental remediation at returned bases. Accepting return of the bases was in the national interest of the Republic of Korea.

Historical cases involving Agent Orange and formaldehyde (actually 91 liters of formalin, a mixture of 37 percent formaldehyde, water, methanol and alcohol) discharged in the Hangang River are excellent examples of where a good story ignores contrary facts.

Claims that Agent Orange was buried by the U.S. military in Korea were likely motivated by ex-service members with medical conditions who hoped to receive benefits under a relaxed legal standard that mere presence in a geographic area where Agent Orange was used was enough to confer a “presumption of exposure,” hence government provided medical benefits; actual exposure to the herbicide was not required. After exhaustive and expensive investigation, the results showed that Korean citizens in the vicinity of Camp Carroll were never at risk.

Reports that formaldehyde was dumped in the Hangang River took exaggeration to the next level. An unauthorized action did occur, apologies were repeated at various levels and corrective measures were implemented.

What actually happened: From the drain in the Yongsan mortuary, the formalin went into a 2,725-liter septic tank containing other by-products of human activity. From there, it was transported via city sewer lines to the Nanji Wastewater Treatment Plant were it was diluted to an estimated 0.031 mg/L (a widely used health advisory limit is 10.0 mg/L). Finally, along with thousands of liters of treated effluent, it entered the Han; hardly the stuff to inspire horror genre or lend support for claims that the U.S. military is not a good steward of Korea’s environment unless the conclusion was reached well before any consideration of facts could be brought to the discussion.

An alliance is like a marriage: There are bound to be rough spots. Making it work is about daily effort and incremental improvement, mutual respect and commitment to a shared vision for the future. Daily frustrations cannot, and should not be allowed to blind us from imagining a better future for ourselves and future generations.

― Malcolm H. Perkins, Seoul

Immigration ...

The key word is “sustainable.” According to Statistics Korea, the immigrant population has increased by nearly 30 percent over the last five years. The number of “multicultural families” has been also steadily increasing over the last few years. Despite the trend, the government is doing little to adapt to the changes happening in Korean society. Moreover, many Koreans look down on many immigrants, especially if they are from Africa or Southeast Asia, the so-called developing world.

What the government should focus on is accommodating the needs of immigrants and multicultural families to satisfy them and improve their overall happiness.

Campaigns sponsored by the government and special programs in the education system should be initiated to change the stereotype of immigrants and appeal the benefits of immigrant to the general public. As a result, the current rate of the immigration into ROK will truly be “sustainable.”

― Robert Yu, Seoul, via Facebook

In order to sustain Korea’s growth and to secure that proper welfare for its citizens in the future you need a steady stream of immigrants to take those jobs that regular Koreans will not be willing to do. Also due to the declining birth rate of Korea and better living standards, many Koreans shun away from certain “3-D” jobs (dirty, dangerous, difficult).

This can be seen already in the manufacturing sector and construction sector, where a lot of the workers are from third-world countries. My prediction is that Korea will need to follow Sweden’s example where immigration has helped to sustain the declining population rate and also taken a lot of the jobs that many people are not willing to do.

― Jonte Hee Soo A, Suwon, via Facebook