This is the second installment of a series of features, analysis and interviews exploring the challenges faced by Koreans and foreigners in creating a more diverse society in South Korea rapidly shifting away from its homogenous past. – Ed.
Immigrants are the only solution for South Korea’s looming demographic cliff, as the country faces an ultra-low birth rate and a rapidly aging population. But to turn this homogeneous society into an open community for immigrants, there must first be a law that guarantees them protection from racial discrimination, a Seoul-based immigration policy expert said.
There have been attempts to solve problems with (the falling) population, such as promoting policies to raise fertility rates, strengthening artificial intelligence or automation technologies, raising the retirement age, and getting the elderly back to work, according to Yoon In-jin, president of the Korean International Migration Studies Association, in an interview with The Korea Herald. But none of these methods have worked in other advanced countries, he said.
“It is because when a country becomes developed, people tend not to work unless they are paid well enough. This is a global phenomenon,” he said. “This is why the demographic problem South Korea faces can only be solved through immigration.”
As South Korea moves to open up more on immigration, the anti-discrimination law is a must, he said, citing local residents’ protest against a mosque construction plan in Daegu as a key reflection of how South Koreans have "exaggerated fears" about foreigners.
Residents have been protesting the construction of a mosque in Daehyeon-dong, Daegu since 2021. The protests have involved pork feasts including the placement of a pig's head outside the mosque, along with various anti-Islamic signs against local Muslim residents.
"In terms of ethnic population composition, Koreans still dominate, and no other minority has a large enough share to cause racial conflicts in South Korea,” he said. As Muslims account for only 0.4 percent of the total population and are geographically dispersed, the fears expressed by Korean residents in the Daegu mosque case are excessive, he added.
South Korea and Japan are the only two countries that have no anti-discrimination law, unlike their peers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. There has been a push to enact an anti-discrimination law since the early 2000s, with the first government-led bill proposed in 2007 under the Roh Moo-hyun administration. The latest attempt was made in June 2020, aiming to prevent discrimination based on nationality, race and religion -- in addition to other aspects such as gender, disability, age and sexual orientation. However, due to backlash from conservative religious groups who mainly took issue with protection for sexual minorities, the law has yet to be passed.
If passed, those who feel discriminated against would have a process through which they can report their case to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. Then the commission would listen to both sides and decide whether there was unreasonable discrimination. The law would give the commission the power to impose a fine of up to 30 million won ($23,000) on those who ignore corrective orders without a good reason after being found of engaging in discrimination.
Prerequiste for a foreigner-friendly society
The law is a prerequisite for a country that has set out to create a foreigner-friendly society through its policies.
“This is for the future,” he said, referring to terrorist attacks by the second generation of immigrants in Madrid, London and Paris as lessons for Korea.
Yoon referred to the phenomenon of ‘immigrant mentality,’ in which the first generation of immigrants take responsibility for whatever unfair treatment they encounter in their new home country, but the second generation does not and speaks out.
Currently, there are a relatively small number of second-generation immigrants in South Korea, so discrimination has yet to become a major social problem. However, if unfair treatment continues as the number of second-generation immigrants increases, it can become a big social problem, he argued.
“Change does not happen only through education. We need an anti-discrimination law to move toward a multiracial and multiethnic society."
Yoon is not only one calling for the enactment of the anti-discrimination act.
The National Human Rights Commission of Korea has been also supportive of the equality law, saying it is a duty that South Korea, a member of the UN Human Rights Council, must fulfill.
On the government’s plan to launch an agency in charge of immigration affairs sometime in the first half of this year, the professor said the plan comes relatively late, considering the number of immigrants and the level of the country’s economic development.
"About four percent of the population is foreigners who reside in South Korea. Including naturalized citizens and permanent residents, the figure reaches five percent. Therefore, the Immigration Office must be established quickly so that unified immigration policies can be implemented," he said.
The number of foreign nationals in South Korea exceeded 2 million for the first time in 2016 and is projected to surpass 3 million in 2030, according to Korea Immigration Service data. Of them, about 1.76 million were registered as long-term residents, meaning they had a visa that let them stay longer than 3 months.
Yoon suggested that migrant workers should have the right to settle down and reunite with their families if they contribute to South Korea by working here for more than a decade. To prevent nonprofessional workers from settling down, the South Korean government strictly limits the length of stay for foreign workers who have entered through the "employment permit system."
This system prohibits foreign workers from bringing their family members to South Korea to live together. Many human rights organizations have criticized the South Korean government’s treatment of migrant workers as machines without considering their human rights.
"We need an advanced immigration policy that is not only efficient, but also respects human rights in line with national status," Yoon said.
Yoon In-jin is also a sociology professor at Korea University. His research fields are international migration, multicultural society and overseas Koreans. He has served as a member of the Foreign Policy Committee under the Prime Minister, a policy advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the president of the Association for the Studies of Koreans Abroad, the president of the Association of North Korean Defectors, and the president of the Korean International Migration Studies Association.