The Korea Times on Immigration

Here’s an interesting editorial by Minister of Justice Lee Kwi-Nam published in the Korea Times.   In some ways, it’s a fluff piece, but it also manages to contextualize the ups and downs of Korea’s attitude toward foreigners and immigration.   Korea didn’t have to think much about immigration until a decade ago, when an economic boom and cultural revolution began to draw interest from abroad.  The immigrant population in Korea has swelled and diversified, and now totals about 3% of the population (the 2.3% figure in the article is a little old).   On one hand, this means that Korea has become a lot more multicultural.  Korea, a historically ethnically homogeneous nation, has grown accustomed to foreign faces and tastes.  Furthermore, new legislation, as described in the article, is redefining attitudes toward citizenship.   However, xenophobia persists, mostly directed toward immigrants from less affluent countries in southern Asia.  As in the United States and Europe, these immigrants are often viewed as potential criminals or a threat to local jobs.  In short, Korea’s opened up toward immigration, but only when immigrants bring skills and education.  The government is making it more convenient for these useful immigrants to legally reside, but is also taking a tougher stance on illegal immigration.   It is unclear how these shifts in demographics and attitude will affect English teachers.  The number of foreign teachers residing in Korea continues to grow, but the government is taking steps to ensure that these teachers are qualified.  This explains certain visa requirements like the 4-year college diploma and clear criminal background check.

The Korea Times

Editorial: Lee Kwi-nam, Minister of Justice

The 21st century is defined as “the Great Migration Era” because of stark increases in the flow of goods and capital and mass movement of populations across borders.

According to the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2009, one in every seven of the world’s population, approximately 740 million people are migrants whose mobility was spurred by job-seeking and among them, 214 million are international migrants who moved across national borders.

In an era of mass migration, countries around the world are rushing to attract the best and the brightest who are equipped with advanced knowledge and information, and capable of leading in technology innovation.

As a way of attracting talented individuals, drastic reform of immigration policies is needed. At the same time a higher level of cooperation between states is required to respond to the issues arising from growing illegal immigration.

Change in Korea‘s Immigration Policy

Only 30 years ago, Korea simply and solely took into consideration the Korean nationals migrating overseas. However, today Korea has become one of the most quintessential immigrant nations with a large immigrant population. The number of immigrants in Korea has exceeded 1.15 million, accounting for 2.3 percent of the entire population.

In addition, the composition of immigrants has diversified in range from physical laborers to immigrants by marriage, international students, professional workers and so forth.

On the other hand, since 2002, the number of people who have lost or renounced their nationality has increased to approximately 1.8 million, far surpassing the current 83,000 naturalized or newly reinstated Korean citizens. And this phenomenon in the net outflow of Korean citizens has been continuing.

Boosting National Competitiveness 

In the era of a knowledge-based information society of the 21stcentury, countries are waging a war for talent to strengthen the competitiveness of the nation. Attracting talent who will lead in technology innovation and high added value industry is the integral part of sustainable growth engine.

As part of such effort, the Ministry of Justice has introduced Business start-up visa (D8) and Job-seekers visa (D10). In order to draw more foreign professionals who received diplomas from local universities, the government has eased regulations for foreign job seekers. Immigrants who invest a certain amount of money ($500,000) in creating jobs in Korea are granted a “Green Card”.

In addition, the government has implemented various support measures to attract medical tourists. For example, from July, foreigners are allowed to get new visas to get medical treatment. A foreign medical tourist visa is granted to patients who need a long-term stay to receive medical treatment at local hospitals and institutes. The visa issuance process has also been streamlined, in particular, for Chinese medical tourists. The number of documents required to apply for a medical tourist visa has decreased markedly to two from seven.

Starting from next year, Online Visa Nomination and Inspection System will be adopted to facilitate the attraction of talent with Visa Nominator such as Korean Consulates abroad, KOTRA for local entities.

Meanwhile, there has been criticism that a rigid single-nationality regulation not only makes it hard to attract talents from foreign countries, but also encourages foreigners to renounce Korean nationality.

To tackle this problem, the government has unveiled a plan to revise the Nationality Law to permit dual nationality for foreign professionals, overseas Korean adoptees, immigrants through marriage by easing the obligation to rescind their own nationality.

When it comes to obtaining permanent residency in Korea, the government also plans to expand opportunity for professional and skilled foreign workers to be helpful to our society.

However, the bottom line in revising the laws and regulations is that it should be a manageable and orderly system.

Promoting Legitimate Stay of Foreigners

As the number of foreign residents in Korea has surpassed 1.15 million, the number of those who illegally sojourn has also been on the rise. The authorities have been enforcing consistent and intensified laws against the illegal aliens, thus reducing the figure to about 184,000 as of September 2009 from 220,000 as of the end of 2007.

Negative sentiment against illegal aliens appears to be growing. An increase in illegal aliens not only hinders the government’s endeavors to attract skilled and highly specialized foreign workers, it causes frictions between foreign migrant workers and locals in the job market, but also makes the living area of illegal aliens become slums.

To ease anti-foreign workers sentiment, under the principles of the rule of law, the government strictly cracks down on the foreigners illegally overstaying their visa.

At the same time, the government encourages the illegal migrant workers to depart this country of their own volition by discharging them from fines and minimizing entry restrictions, which enables them to re-enter Korea.

Recently, criminal offences by foreigners are raising concerns in our society. Incidence of offences by foreigners has jumped from 13,000 in 2004 to 34,000 in 2008.

Foreigners who were deported after being convicted of criminal offences re-enter the country under fake identities, and are involved in other crimes. However, the lack of Foreigners Identity Management system has become a stumbling block to effective law enforcement.

In this regard, to protect the Korean nationals and innocent foreigners against crimes and to promote safety and security, the government plans to require all foreigners entering Korea to have their fingerprints registered.

The Ministry of Justice will propose the revision of the Immigration Law so that non-Koreans visiting Korea are obliged to provide their biometric information (fingerprints and photograph, etc.) to the authorities upon their arrival.

The bill on the revision of the Immigration Law will be submitted to the National Assembly, and it will take effect as early as the second half of 2012.

The revised law, if passed, will oblige all foreigners over age 17, excluding diplomats and those who carry out their official duties, to register their fingerprints and a photo when they visit this country and apply for alien registration.

We may face an accusation that it could infringe on the human rights of foreigners and discriminate them. But that is not necessarily true.

Koreans are required to provide their fingerprints and other basic personal information when they are issued their Resident Registration Card at age 17.

Customer-Oriented Services

The Ministry of Justice has minimized potential discomforts of airport users by unburdening them from obligation to summit an immigration form, introducing the cutting-edge Machine Readable Passport (MRP), which enhances accuracy of immigration inspection and sharply reduces wait times for immigration inspection. Recently, we also have launched unmanned immigration inspection which is being put on a trial run.

Thanks to such administrative innovation, Incheon Airport won the first place in ACI Airport Service Quality Award in 2006, and has received the same award for the following three consecutive years until this year. In 2007, the airport immigration office has also earned the Public Service Award from the United Nations.

Any Korean national who is over 17 years of age and registered as a valid user at the registration center located in Incheon airport, could immediately use the unmanned immigration inspection service. In the near future, the system will be in service at all airports and seaports across the country, and the service will also be open to registered foreigners as well.

In addition, to improve convenience of foreigners residing in Korea, the Ministry of Justice has established “e-Government for foreigners” and provided advisory services in 18 different languages for foreign residents to deal with issues of immigration, stay and nationality through the unified “1345” number which can be accessed from all around the country.

The e-Government Web site ( offers approximately 30 foreigner-related services including re-entry permit, extension of stay and preventing any possible inconveniences to foreigners by requiring them to visit immigration offices.

The Ministry of Justice will continuously try further to provide foreign residents with a convenient living environment by simplifying administrative process including expansion of the online administrative services.

Creating Open Society

As of September, it is estimated that the number of immigrants by marriage stands at 120,000 and 10,000 foreigners obtain Korean citizenship every year.

The increase of residing immigrants including immigrants through marriage has given rise to what is so called the “multicultural phenomenon” in Korean society, and thus it is a paramount task for us to seamlessly integrate foreign immigrants into Korean society.

Under these circumstances, the Korean government enacted the “Basic Act on the Treatment of Foreigners Residing in Korea” in May, 2007, in a bid to support foreign residents in settling down in our society without much difficulty, realizing their full potential, and creating the atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding between the locals and foreigners.

In particular, the Ministry of Justice launched the “Social Integration Program,” which provides education on the understanding of Korean society and Korean language for foreign immigrants by marriage, and gives incentives for those who earn credit from it when they obtain citizenship.

As such, policies for foreigners which seek social integration and well-established order have taken root in our society.

However, the Ministry of Justice and the government alone will not be able to realize a genuinely mature cosmopolitan nation.

It is about time we have to constantly gather thoughts and wisdom from all sectors of our society, including civic groups, media, locals and foreigners, and pay special interest in foreign residents so that we would ultimately create a social environment where foreigners contribute to further development and social integration of this country no longer as strangers, but as part of society.

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