Korea Breaking Down Walls of Discrimination
The Minister of Justice
``We will create an open society for all.''
This is one of the 100 policy goals of the Lee Myung-bak government. Since its launch, the government has been pushing for a proactive immigration policy that shifts the focus from regulation and control to openness and exchange.
Our challenge is to strengthen national competitiveness by opening our borders to all people with talent and to create a mature multicultural society that respects the human rights of foreigners. In the process, we must also prevent any negative side effects of our openness policy by ensuring everyone in Korea abides by the law.
Boosting national competitiveness by opening up the country
According to the U.N. estimate, global migrants numbered about 190 million in 2005, or 3 percent of the world's population of 6.47 billion people. Almost 60 percent of global migrants have gone to the U.S. and wealthy European countries. As the transnational movement of people accelerates, leading countries have considered immigration policy as a core strategy for economic development. Their fierce competition to attract those with talent from around the world has even been called ``a war for talent.'' In today's world, human resource procurement can be translated into national power.
Korea has one of the world's lowest fertility rates, standing at 1.26 in 2007. One study estimates that the population in the Republic of Korea will peak at 49.34 million people by 2018 and will then start to decline. Korea also is losing much of its top native talent, with the Brain Drain Index falling from 7.53 (4th among 48 countries) in 1995 to 4.91 (40th among 61 countries) in 2006.
We need to attract talented people from around the world who can contribute to our technology innovation, help nurture value-added industries, and introduce global management techniques that can allow sustainable growth. However, our performance to date has been negligible. As of the end of June 2008, only 5.5 percent (29,000 people) of all the foreigners working in Korea were engaged in a professional occupation.
The Justice Ministry has been improving the visa system to attract foreign professionals and other talented persons needed in various areas of our economy. We eased the requirements for foreign investors to obtain permanent residence, and we introduced a new ``job-seeker's'' visa that allows people from leading companies and universities around the world to enter Korea and seek jobs without an invitation. Within the year, we will also launch an on-line visa nomination and inspection system, called HuNet Korea, which will help Korean companies to find professionals overseas and arrange for their employment in Korea.
The Justice Ministry is also supporting the effort to attract international students who can serve as a bridge of friendship and cooperation between countries. We expanded the scope of employment opportunities for non-Korean students who graduate from Korean universities and have increased the number of hours that international students are allowed to work part-time. The number of international students in Korea has jumped fivefold during the past five years, but we need to diversify the international student base further.
Making life in Korea more convenient for foreigners
The Korean government is committed to providing foreign residents with a convenient living environment, but much more must be done. Only 26.5 percent of the respondents to a KOTRA survey of foreign companies in 2007 said they are satisfied with the living environment in Korea. Therefore, we are now working on making communication, transportation, housing, education, leisure, and cultural opportunities more accessible to foreign nationals and thereby raise their satisfaction level.
The Ministry of Justice recently established the Immigration Contact Center (1345), which provides assistance in 18 languages. We also opened a website (www.hikorea.go.kr) that provides foreigners with information on living in Korea and online access to administrative services. I am confident that Korea soon will be the country of choice for many talented people from overseas, as the ministries responsible for transportation, housing, welfare, medical services, education, culture, and leisure are pooling their resources to create a more comfortable and convenient living environment for foreigners.
Providing mutual benefit for domestic business and foreign workers
The number of non-Korean residents has surged since the 1990s as a result of rapid economic development and social democratization. Korea had 1.15 million foreigners, or 2.3 percent of the total population, residing in the country at the end of 2008. If the same growth trend continues, the figure will reach 1.57 million by 2012.
The number of migrant workers in Korea, including Korean-Chinese who are on Working-Visit (H-2) visas, has remained above 540,000. These migrants are helping both Korea and their home countries. On the one hand, they are enhancing Korean competitiveness by significantly reducing the labor shortage stemming from the low birthrate, aging population and high education level of the Korean population. On the other hand, they are contributing to the well-being of their families back home and to their own economies as a whole. Therefore the Korean government is seeking ways to ensure that migration remains mutually beneficial for all parties.
The Korean government has been improving institutions and regulations to help Korean companies secure the foreign workers they need. The Ministry of Justice has adopted various measures to improve the working conditions of foreign workers and to support their resettlement. We will proactively expand services to enhance convenience for both foreign workers and their employers. This effort includes increasing the number of mobile immigration units in areas where migrant workers are concentrated such as industrial complexes. Furthermore, we are considering granting residence visa status for those with the specific skills and capabilities that Korean industry needs most.
Fostering a mature multicultural society where human rights are respected
The Korea National Statistical Office has reported that 11.1 percent of all the marriages in Korea in 2007 were international. International couples now abound in rural areas, with some 40 percent of Korean farmers and fishermen are registered as having married foreign women. At the end of 2008, immigrants through marriage totaled 164,000 including those who have become Korean nationals. Thus, the number of children from multiracial couples continues to rise, with about 20,000 such children in elementary, middle and high schools as of April 2008.
Immigrants who are unfamiliar with Korean language and society are vulnerable to discrimination and human rights abuses, and they have difficulty in educating their children. This is why migrants need systemic and level-specific education from the day they enter the country. To help immigrants resettle in Korea, the government is starting a pilot program dubbed ``the Social Integration Program'' this year. The program will give incentives for migrants who earn credit from the Social Integration Program.
The government will develop a Social Integration Index to evaluate the basic knowledge, employment, and education of immigrant children, and evaluate government policy in this regard. In addition, a Social Integration Monitor Group consisting of immigrants will be established to ensure policy making and implementation are as effective as possible.
The number of persons applying for refugee status is increasing as well, prompting the Justice Ministry to improve procedures so that refugee status can be determined quickly and fairly. We plan to establish refugee support facilities by 2012.
Restoring law and order in support of opening
Law and order are essential in implementing a proactive immigration policy. The government has been emphasizing the importance of law and order, believing that this is the only way to reduce mistrust in society and the social costs stemming from it.
As of the end of 2008, illegal aliens living in Korea amounted to 200,489. Although the figure reflects a 10 percent decrease from 2007 thanks to the government effort, illegal aliens still make up 17.3 percent of the total foreign population in Korea.
Foreigners who do not comply with Korean law become obstacles to Korea's march toward an open society. Being an illegal alien deprives a person of his human rights.
The hiring of illegal aliens is a grave violation of law that leads to infringement of human rights and to tax evasion. However, some in Korea wrongly believe employment of illegal aliens as an inevitable choice in the face of the serious labor shortage. The government will enact measures to allow companies to hire foreign workers in areas where the labor supply is lacking and will apply zero tolerance to those hiring illegal aliens.
We will also improve institutions and practices to prevent the violation of human rights in the law enforcement process. The government has been helping foreigners in custody receive delayed wages before their deportation. Last year alone, Korean immigration offices across the country resolved 7,804 cases of delayed wages, amounting to about $7 million.
We understand that blocking the entry of terrorists and felons is critical for ensuring national security. According to the statistics, crimes by foreigners have climbed from 6,144 in 2003 to 14,524 in 2007. The government intends to put the fingerprints of foreigners on file to block the entry of dangerous people as well as to protect foreigners. The purpose of collecting foreigners' fingerprints is the same as that for collecting the fingerprints of Korean nationals.
Implementing a consolidated immigration policy government-wide
The Ministry of Justice made public last December the first Basic Plan for Immigration Policy (2008~2012), laying the foundation for implementing a long-term and consistent immigration policy. Replacing the fragmented and uncoordinated policy of the past will help the government better respond to the changing external environment. Currently the ministries and local governments are devising implementation plans for 2009 based on the basic plan.
We have done much toward putting the immigration policy on the right track in order to create an open Korea for all. However, the government alone will not be able to achieve this goal. A society where Koreans and foreigners live in harmony will be created only when all of the people, the media, and civil groups work together.
We can build a world-class society when we all open our minds and dedicate ourselves to creating an open society. Only then, can we find the answer to the equation ``Korean people + foreigners = ?''