An advanced industrial economy with a high quality of life and one of Asia’s few liberal democracies, South Korea is a comparatively attractive destination for international migrants. Given the country’s low birth rate and aging population, there are needs for both ‘high’ and ‘low’ skill labour. Immigration is thus seen as a necessary. Accordingly, Seoul has sought to revise its immigration system and remake the country’s identity, opting for a global and multicultural identity over an ethnic and culturally homogenous one.
How have South Koreans responded to these changes? What are their attitudes towards immigration and social diversity, and how has immigration played out in the 2022 election cycle?
Korea’s immigrant population is growing. At the end of 2019, the number of immigrants, measured as ‘foreign residents’, stood at approximately 2.2 million, or 4% of the population. The number is much lower than immigrant nations, like Canada and the United States, but prior to the disruptions due to COVID-19, the trend over time was upward and consistent. Between 2006 and 2019, the number of immigrants rose more than fourfold. For a country long defined by an ethnocultural nationalism, the demographic changes are notable. What do the people think about this?
As per available survey data, South Korean attitudes towards multiculturalism and immigration paint a challenging picture. Regarding the country’s national identity, data from the East Asian Institute’s (EAI) ‘Korean Identity’ surveys finds that in 2010, 60.6% of respondents said they preferred a multicultural country over an ethnically homogenous one (2.4% didn't know). However, in 2020 support for a multicultural identity decreased substantially, down to less than half of all respondents (44.4%). Those preferring an ethnically homogenous country stayed about the same (39.1%), but those who didn’t know which of the two they wanted jumped to 13.1%.
The same EAI survey data in 2020 shows that more than half (57.1%) believe there are limits to accepting foreigners from different races, religions, and cultures. Fewer, but still about half (48.9%), agreed that crime rates rise as the number of migrants increases in the country. Only a quarter of respondents disagreed (25.1%), while roughly a third neither agreed nor disagreed. These numbers are roughly the same as they were in 2010.
The survey data show that most South Koreans are uncertain, at least, and often resistant to the country’s increasing diversity. Virulent opposition from local residents to the construction of a Mosque in a neighborhood of Daegu, a city in the country’s southeast, underscores such resistance. Strong opposition to accepting Yemeni refugees from people across the country in 2018 does the same.
But there are important caveats and conditions that apply. The data cited above is about immigration generally. The questions do not inform respondents about who these immigrants are. It does not specify where they are from, what they do for a living, and so on.
Immigrant backgrounds matter. As research shows, co-ethnic immigration is significantly more supported than the immigration of non-ethnic Koreans. My research from 2019 confirms these findings, and then builds on them. I find that while shared ethnicity does indeed motivate greater support, what matters more is where prospective immigrants come from (e.g., their status or culture) and whether they can contribute economically (i.e., have desirable skills). High skill migrants from more culturally similar and/or economically developed countries are most preferred. If they are ethnic Koreans, all the better, but co-ethnicity alone does not generate high support.
There is, indeed, a hierarchy to national belonging in South Korea. Research finds that among ethnic returnees, those coming from more economically developed countries, such as the United States, enjoy greater social status than Korean Chinese. This preference manifests legally, too, as co-ethnic migrants from more developed countries are also given a more favorable visa status. The preference for higher skill immigration is no different than other countries, but in South Korea there is a notable origins-based preference less prevalent elsewhere. The interaction between a migrant’s origin and their potential economic contribution is, arguably, what sets South Korea apart from its similarly developed and democratic peers.
This matters, because in 2019 approximately 750,000 immigrants in South Korea were of Chinese origin, constituting by far the largest cohort of immigrants in the country. Negative sentiment towards China has risen considerably in South Korea as of late, as it has elsewhere, as geopolitics leads to intensified competition between the two countries. Further liberalization of citizenship laws, for instance, face stiff resistance because of such sentiment, even though about 71% of immigrants from China are ethnic Korean.
Other popular origins in the region include countries like Vietnam and Thailand, the former of which is a common origin for marriage migrants (along with China). Attitudes towards a country like Vietnam is not particularly positive, either, although there is no discernable uptick in animosity towards this country. It is important to note, however, that when we speak of attitudes towards immigration and multiculturalism, we are largely speaking of what South Koreans think of immigrants from these countries. In so doing, it is important to keep in mind that there is strong origins-based discrimination in immigrant preference.
How, then, has immigration played out during the South Korean election cycle? Immigration is not a highly salient political issue, so the short answer is that it hasn’t played much at all. One of the most divisive and salient issues for the 2022 election has been gender discrimination. However, the topic of immigration has been given some consideration by the leading candidates instructive of what kinds of immigration policies they might pursue.
During an event held at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Korea’s flagship science and technology university, the leading candidates underscored the importance of cultivating scientific and technological talent. But it was leading progressive candidate Lee Jae-myung and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo who noted the importance of attracting high skilled immigrants. Lee, when interviewed and asked about immigration policy for scientists and engineers, agreed that such talent is important, but demurred on how he might pursue such a policy. He cites the need for ‘social consensus’ around the issue and concerns related to a tight labor market.
Speaking to both economic and cultural anxieties, the conservative People’s Power Party candidate, Yoon Seok-yeol, has taken a populist approach. In a Facebook post, he pledged to end the ‘problem’ of foreign residents taking advantage of the country’s health care system, namely, getting more in payouts than they pay in. He singled out Chinese immigrants are those who ‘enjoyed the most benefits’. As my research finds, there is considerable welfare chauvinism directed at migrants from China in particular, which Yoon is likely channeling with his anti-foreigner remarks.
Yoon is also categorically wrong. Foreigners contribute considerably more overall than they are paid in benefits. In fact, Korea’s healthcare system enjoys a surplus because of contributions paid by foreign residents. Lee Jae-myung indicated as such in a response to Yoon, where he accused the conservative candidate of engaging in rightwing populism and xenophobia. Yoon is also noted as saying that South Korea should have cut off immigration from China early in the pandemic.
As South Korea reckons with the economic implications of a rapidly aging population and continues to compete with China in science and technology, it will have to determine whether it wants to and can accommodate a more liberal immigration regime. South Koreans are cautiously open to a more diverse society, but there are rather stringent conditions.
It thus remains to be seen whether the country will realize an identity consistent with liberal democratic identity it projects and the status it deserves as one of the world’s leading economies. As evidenced by statements made by the two major candidates, Lee and Yoon, the winner of the March 9 elections will indeed have some implications on this question.