Immigration to South Korea

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Immigration to South Korea (Korean: 한국으로의 이민) is low due to restrictive immigration policies resulting from strong opposition to immigrants from the general Korean public.[1] However, in recent years the influx of immigrants into South Korea has been on the rise, with foreign residents accounting for 4.9% of the total population in 2019.[2] According to the United Nations, in 2019 foreign born residents represented 2.3% of the total population, which is below the world average of 3.5%.[3]


Those who have at least one South Korean parent are automatically granted South Korean nationality from birth, regardless of their decisions on whether to choose the nationality of the foreign parent or the country of birth (if born outside South Korea).

Requirements for General Naturalization include:

  • Must have had domicile address in South Korea for more than five consecutive years
  • Must be a legal adult according to South Korean Civil Law
  • Must have good conduct
  • Must have the ability to maintain living on his/her own assets or skills; or is a dependent member of a family so capable. Applicants must have basic knowledge befitting a South Korean national; such as understanding of the Korean language, customs and culture

In 2007 the UN declared South Korea an official receiving country. The number of foreigners in South Korea grew from 390,000 in 1997 to 1 million in 2007. Among these are 630,000 temporary laborers, as well as 100,000 foreigners married to South Korean nationals. Furthermore, there are 230,000 illegal immigrants.

Main sending countries are Asian countries, such as China, Vietnam, Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Uzbekistan. There are also migrants from Nigeria, Ghana, Russia, and the United States.[4]

Nominally, the South Korean government says it wants to create a multicultural society and foreigner-friendly environment.[5]

Issues with current immigrant policies[edit]

As described in the new national plan for immigration policy, the government claims a "world-class South Korea" welcoming of foreigners. However, critics argue that the government's goals and policies are fundamentally discriminatory, stemming from racist attitudes in the country and ethnic nationalism.[6] In response, the South Korean government introduced new regulations in April 2014, which meant foreign spouses would have to pass a Korean-language proficiency test and earn a minimum wage of $14,000.[7][8]

Temporary workers and illegal immigrants[edit]

Since 1991 South Korea has experienced a large influx of foreign workers. Approximately 10,000 Asian workers came to South Korea under a newly established trainee program in 1992. In June 1996, there were 57,000 trainees in South Korea. Despite its growth, the trainee program also had problems—namely that the trainees became undocumented workers due to wage differentials, and that they were not protected by the Labor Standard Law as they were not considered laborers.

Since 2004, the South Korean government has followed the "Employment Permit Program" for foreigners, the product of a decade of interaction between Korean citizens and foreign migrant workers. Legally, foreigners are allowed to enter mainly to fulfill low-wage jobs, and they are excluded from receiving social services. Public opinion data shows that Korean citizens retain a discriminatory attitude towards foreign workers.

Immigration violations of human rights[edit]

There are many reports from legal and illegal immigrants which have jailed in many prisons in South Korea because of small problems or misunderstanding their visas for long time. Also, there are some reports about beating and abusing the prisoners. South Korea immigration however paid for the deportation ticket and made sure they are integrated in their new homes.

Foreign brides and children of multiethnic families[edit]

Foreign brides and their multicultural children are growing into a major political issue. Sending countries are likely to worry about their immigrants due to deep-rooted discrimination against foreigners in South Korea. Now, most immigration into South Korea comes from Southeast Asia, and immigrant treatment, particularly if there is abuse of foreign brides, is likely to provoke not only domestic problems, but also diplomatic tension. What immigration there has been, is frequently so focused on the birth-rate problem that it is more properly called bride-importing than immigration.[9]

Revised RomanizationOnnurian

The term "onnurian" refer to a person of mixed heritage, most commonly applied to children of a South Korean father and a Southeast Asian mother.[10] Another term, "Kosian", was coined in 1997 by intercultural families to refer to themselves,[11] but its use spread in the early 2000s as international marriages became increasingly common in rural areas.[12] The term is now considered offensive by some who prefer to identify simply as ethnically Korean.[13][14]

South Korean men have married women from post-Soviet states such as Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan within Korea significantly more than the reverse.[15]

Number of spouses from western countries settling in the country with South Korean spouses has also been on a consistent rise.[16]

Spouses of South Korean nationals can acquire South Korean citizenship more easily than other foreigners, which encourages thousands of spouses to naturalize every year.

The government of South Korea initiated a discussion whether to establish independent Immigration Office to accommodate fast-growing immigration and to prepare inclusive and rational immigration policies, from 2003, without progress. The Foreigner Policy Committee headed by the South Korean prime minister is responsible for coordinating the country's policies concerning foreigners, which had formerly been handled by multiple ministries. However, its role is limited due to a shortage of resources and manpower. Establishing an Immigration Office is expected to solve these problems by concentrating all the related resources and manpower under one umbrella.[17]

According to the UN Recommendations on Statistics of International Migration (revised in 1998), long-term international immigration is recorded after an individual enters a country and establishes his usual place of residence there for more than a year. Therefore, when the South Korea government builds new policies, immigrant laborers and children of illegal migrants should be counted to follow this guideline.

South Korea is a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The South Korean government is the ultimate authority to determine who is eligible to receive refugee status in South Korea.

Migrant laborers[edit]

The South Korean economy grew almost non-stop from near zero to over a trillion dollars in less than half a century

South Korea used to be a net sender of immigrants until 2007, sending farmers, miners, nurses, and workers to the United States, Germany, and the Middle East. The ethnic Korean diaspora numbers 7.49 million as of 2019, including 2.54 million in the United States and 2.46 million in China.[18]

South Korea experienced government-initiated rapid economic growth from the 1960s on, which has been called the "Miracle on the Han River". Until the end of 1980s, South Korea was able to sustain its growth without foreign laborers because of its abundant young population and low wages. But starting from the 1990s, South Korea's plummeting birth rate and growing cost of labor caused labor shortages especially in the so-called "3D jobs" (for "dirty, dangerous, and difficult"), which translated into demand for foreign labor.

Economic development and urbanization led many people to leave rural areas and move to cites. However, according to traditional Confucian norms which a lot of older South Koreans still adhere to, the eldest son must remain with his parents. Chronic shortages of women arose in rural areas, and international marriages began to fill this unmet demand.

Many migrant workers live in the industrial suburbs of Gyeonggi Province such as Siheung and Ansan, where foreigners account for 7.6% of the population.[19]


Nationality of immigrants[edit]

There are 2,524,656 foreign residents in South Korea as of December 2019.[15] These figures exclude foreign-born citizens who have naturalized and obtained South Korean citizenship; the total number of naturalized South Korean citizens surpassed 200,000 in 2019.[20] Among these numbers, 792,853 of these people are short-term residents.

Country 2021 (Aug.)[21] 2019
 China 851,615 1,101,782
 Vietnam 209,839 224,518
 Thailand 174,052 209,909
 United States 145,724 156,982
 Uzbekistan 66,181 75,320
 Russia 48,511 61,427
 Philippines 47,592 62,398
 Cambodia 41,239 47,565
 Mongolia 37,963 48,185
   Nepal 37,092 42,781
 Indonesia 34,514 48,854
 Kazakhstan 30,389 34,638
 Japan 28,631 86,196
 Taiwan 42,767
 Myanmar 29,294
 Canada 26,789
 Sri Lanka 25,064
 Hong Kong 20,018
 Bangladesh 18,340
 Australia 15,222
 Malaysia 14,790
 Pakistan 13,990
 India 12,929
Others 104,898
Total 1,976,000 2,524,656

Ethnic Koreans with foreign citizenship[edit]

Ethnic Koreans from overseas started immigrating to South Korea in large numbers, especially from the 2000s. These immigrants mainly include ethnic Koreans from China and the former Soviet Union, along with Korean Americans. They can apply for F-4 visa which grants them the ability to work and live more freely than other foreigners.[15]

Rank Nationality Population
1  China 719,269
2  United States 45,655
3  Uzbekistan 36,752
4  Russia 28,020
5  Canada 16,046
6  Kazakhstan 14,992
7  Australia 4,783
8  Kyrgyzstan 2,931
9  New Zealand 2,490
- Others 7,501
- Total 878,439

Foreign spouses[edit]

Foreign husbands and wives married to South Korean citizens as of 2019.[15] This figure excludes those who have naturalized and obtained South Korean citizenship; 135,056 foreign-born spouses have naturalized until 2019.

Rank Nationality Total Husbands Wives
1  China 60,324 13,539 46,785
2  Vietnam 44,172 2,742 41,430
3  Japan 14,184 1,235 12,949
4  Philippines 12,030 463 11,567
5  Thailand 5,130 99 5,031
6  Cambodia 4,641 369 4,272
7  United States 3,883 2,801 1,802
8  Uzbekistan 2,688 141 2,547
9  Mongolia 2,497 163 2,334
10  Russia 1,668 119 1,549
11  Taiwan 1,394 116 1,278
12  Canada 1,334 1,098 236
13    Nepal 884 176 708
- Others 11,196 5,870 5,326
- Total 166,025 28,931 137,094

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Myers, Brian Reynolds (3 July 2020). "On the Demolition of the North-South Liaison Office". Sthele Press. Retrieved 16 July 2020. [I]n South Korea, where support for social welfare and public health care is virtually universal, as is opposition to mass immigration, it's largely one's attitude to North Korea that decides whether one counts as 'progressive' or 'conservative.'
  2. ^ "Foreign population in Korea tops 2.5 million". koreatimes. February 24, 2020.
  3. ^ "UN_MigrantStockTotal_2019".
  4. ^ "Immigrants in Korea". National Statistics Office. Archived from the original on 2008-06-30.
  5. ^ Basic Plan South Korean government
  6. ^ Myers, Brian Reynolds (17 April 2020). "On the United Future Party". Sthele Press. Retrieved 16 July 2020. But a telephone call to the number on the banner confirmed what I had instantly assumed: foreign residents need not apply. No, the lady said, it makes no difference if the foreigner has lived and paid taxes in Sasang-gu for 13 years. No, not even if he has the right to vote in municipal elections. It turned out that the only Sasang residents qualified to get the money were those entitled to vote on April 15.
  7. ^ Jeonghoon Jang. 아름다운 재단 - 공감. Beautiful Foundation (in Korean). Archived from the original on 2011-07-27. Retrieved 2011-09-04.
  8. ^ "South Korea government steps in to regulate mixed marriages". The Japan Times. Agence France-Presse / Jiji Press. 12 April 2014.
  9. ^ Prof. Robert Kelly (25 March 2010). "Korea's Slow Boiling Demographic Crisis". Asian Security & US Foreign Relations Blog.
  10. ^ "코시안의 집이란". Kosian House website. Archived from the original on 2006-11-16. Retrieved 2006-11-01.
  11. ^ "KOSIAN Community". Ansan Immigrant Center website. Archived from the original on December 16, 2005. Retrieved 2006-11-01.
  12. ^ "'코시안'(Kosian) 쓰지 마라! (Do not use Kosian)". Naver news (in Korean). February 23, 2006. Retrieved 2006-03-04.
  13. ^ "Myth of Pure-Blood Nationalism Blocks Multi-Ethnic Society". The Korea Times. August 23, 2006. Archived from the original on 2006-08-23.
  14. ^ "'코시안'(Kosian) 쓰지 마라!". Naver news (Korean language) February 23, 2006 (in Korean). Retrieved 2006-03-04.
  15. ^ a b c d "문서뷰어".
  16. ^ "[Why] 국제결혼 줄어드는데… 미국 며느리, 영국·독일 사위 늘었다". March 12, 2016.
  17. ^ Jaehong Kim. 석동현 출입국 외국인정책본부장. LawTimes (in Korean).
  18. ^ "재외동포 정의 및 현황 | 재외동포 정의 및 현황 외교부".
  19. ^ Mundy, Simon (September 17, 2013). "S Korea struggles to take in foreign workers". Financial Times.
  20. ^ "귀화 한국인 20만명 돌파". November 21, 2019.
  21. ^ Number of foreigners in Korea up for 1st time in 20 months

External links[edit]