Korea urged to embrace immigrants

December 31, 2015

By Kim Se-jeong

Korea will eventually have to accept immigration as one of most effective means of tackling its decreasing population amid a record low birthrate, analysts said Thursday.

According to the government, Korea’s population of 51 million will start to decline beginning 2030. The working population between the ages of 15 and 64 is expected to start decreasing in a couple of years. By 2060, Korea’s population is expected to shrink to 44 million.

Against this grim outlook, the government recently said it would consider taking more active steps to encourage immigration.

In its five-year plan to cope with the low birthrate and an aging society, the government said it would set up a control tower for immigration policy, which will collect public opinion and set up long-term plans.

Many analysts say that Korean society needs to embrace immigrants and foreign workers more actively.

Kim Hae-sung, president of Global Sarang, a Seoul-based NGO supporting migrant workers, said it was too early to talk about immigration policy, but when the right time comes, it will be the ultimate solution to the problem.

“Immigration will solve problems attached to the population decrease,” he said. “Discussions should start soon. What’s also important is that it will be Korea’s future, whether we like it or not. Look at the number of people who come for work. Look at the number of interracial marriages here.”

A recent report by the Ministry of Justice also said that the nation would need 1.27 million foreign workers in 2018, 1.34 million in 2020 and 1.82 million in 2030 if the country is to reach its potential growth rate of 3 percent or more — indicating the nation should bring migrant workers into the country at a faster pace.

Kim said that back in 2000, the government and employers of small-sized companies opposed the introduction of the employment permit system when he proposed it. But in 2014, 10 years after its introduction, many such employers said the system has really helped them.

“The immigration policy may be the same. People oppose immigration because they do not know what it will bring, but it will be good.

“I am sure the government knows what’s coming. It will move toward opening the doors when there are more talks.”

Park Mi-hyang, a representative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Korean office, agreed with Kim. “Korea will become an immigrant society. More immigrants will come whether Korea has the policy or not.”

Still, some experts say the issue of accepting immigrants more actively needs a social consensus.

This is especially so because Korea had been a closed society for a long time. Many people are unaccustomed to cultural diversity and, the recent terrorist attack in Paris has reinforced the negative opinion of immigrants among the public.

Lee Sam-sik, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, said the immigration control tower plan does not mean the nation will open its doors to immigrants anytime soon.

“There’s no public consensus on accepting immigrants in Korea,” Lee said. “Korea’s immigration policy is about managing guest workers, and that will continue for a while.”

Korea has roughly 1.2 million foreign-born residents at the moment, including 940,000 migrant workers.