Korea Eager to Embrace Foreigners
Commissioner of Korea Immigration Service
One of the most eye-catching changes in Seoul over the past few years has been the greater number of foreign cars ― many of them top-class ― that roll on its streets alongside domestic Hyundais and Kias. This is an indication not only of the greater wealth that South Koreans have achieved in the recent past, but also of the increasing openness of Korea's product market.
No less noticeable is the increasing presence of foreign people in all walks of our society. These days, the words "wiheom juui" on warning signs at construction sites are followed by curvy Southeast Asian scripts indecipherable to the Korean eye. Many Koreans, including my wife, are great fans of "Misuda," a talk show on KBS featuring young foreign ladies chatting about their experiences of living in Korea.
Most tellingly, evening TV shows these days include foreign characters; this, in my opinion, is the ultimate sign that foreigners have established themselves as a significant part of the Korean society.
This is a momentous change for Korea, long used to and even proud of the belief that it is a homogeneous nation. How are we to deal with this change? As foreigners continue to trickle in and gain ever-greater presence in our society, Koreans may easily erupt in xenophobia and shun foreigners lest they damage our homogeneity or treat them as second-class residents leeching off Korea's wealth.
We must resist any inclination to that effect and instead openly and actively embrace foreigners who choose to come to live, study, or work in Korea. There are economic and moral reasons to do so.
Immigration provides ready solutions to many of the challenges that the Korean economy faces today. In the rapidly ageing Korean society, ever smaller productive population will have to shoulder the burden of supporting ever greater retired population.
Immigrant workers can help diffuse this strain on the Korean workers. Immigration can also help Korean firms, which face steep competition, domestically and abroad, from cheaper products made in China and other developing countries.
Willing to work for less than their Korean counterparts, immigrant workers will help lower labor cost, thereby restoring the price competitiveness of Korean firms' products. Immigration can thus lead to a win-win outcome for Koreans and foreigners. In addition, if highly-skilled professionals can also be lured to come to work in Korea, the Korean society will benefit from a larger pool of talent to draw from as well.
As a liberal democracy, Korea has compelling moral reasons to embrace foreigners as well. Democracy rests on the twin pillars of freedom and equality of all men and women. Truly democratic freedom and equality are universal, and therefore, would apply no less to foreigners than to Koreans.
Interestingly enough, Korea traces its homogeneous lineage to the legendary demigod Dangun, who founded Ancient Korea with the vision of Hong-ik In-gan, i.e., bringing good for all humankind. It is in Korea's founding ideology to reach out to foreigners.
Of course, Korea cannot permit complete freedom of movement into the country right away. There will be issues to be addressed, as more and more foreigners enter Korea. Some of them are already surfacing. Some foreign brides married to Korean farmers have difficulty adjusting to a new life in an unfamiliar country, in some cases leading to dysfunctional families.
Many young men who come to teach English at private institutions have questionable qualifications and background. Low-income immigrant workers are beginning to congregate in cheap neighborhoods, raising the prospect of ghettoes.
Many foreign workers, especially illegal ones, work at places beyond the reach of the law enforcement and cannot receive due protection of their basic rights. It is my and my staff's job at the Korea Immigration Service to ensure that these and other destabilizing issues are adequately managed as Korea slowly but surely opens up to free human movement.
Today, free trade and free movement of capital are fueling an unprecedentedly prosperous globalized world. Well-guided free human movement is not only an economic imperative for the further prosperity of Korea and the world, but also a moral imperative that is in line with Korea's current democratic values and its ancient founding ideology.
Korea is at an important crossroad. By gradually but steadfastly opening up to free human movement, Korea will not only find further economic prosperity, but also emerge as a leader among the world's liberal democracies in an important political issue.
Choo Kyu-ho is Commissioner of Korea Immigration Service.