Sam Hamington, Henry Lau, Choo Sarang - do these names ring a bell? Shoveling piles of ice semi-naked in the freezing weather and chanting slogans in stammering Korean are what have caught the attention of the Korean viewers. Not to mention the nationwide sensation, Sarang who is the daughter of the Korean-Japanese Judo player, Choo Sunghoon and a Japanese model, Yano Siho. Nowadays, our small screens are dominated by multicultural casts. Popular television shows welcome those from different cultural backgrounds with open arms.
Seeing foreigners considered outsiders mingle with Korean people and become assimilated into Korean culture and values, we feel a sense of contentment and nationalism. There are no longer dismal documentaries on the dark reality of multicultural families suffering from discrimination; instead, there are stories of them becoming “Korean.” In this article, we will explore the current state of Korean immigration policies. By comparing the two traditional models of immigration, we wish to see which model would be ideal for Korea, which has just begun to take baby steps in the direction of immigration.
Redefining what it means to be “Korean.”
In the summer of 2002, we saw a sea of endless red in City Hall. Millions of Koreans in red devil t-shirts gathered to root for the national soccer team in the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup. To give a more recent example, when Hines Ward, a Super Bowl MVP of Korean descent was in the global spotlight, Koreans were thrilled to claim him as their own, although his connection to the motherland was distant. These events strongly epitomise the ethnic nationalism of Korea. Such a strong sense of ethnic homogeneity is deeply rooted in Korea, but the appearance of an immigrant demographic seems to be changing this gradually. It is no longer an uncommon experience to bump into foreigners on the streets of Seoul and to come across new cultures and languages in the public.
South Korea - a nation of 50 million people - is not used to incorporating foreigners into its society. It has not been long since Koreans were faced with the influx of immigrants. Only in the mid 1990s did a large number of foreigners like US soldiers and Chinese people begin to reside in Korea. This explains why Koreans are indifferent and often lukewarm to implementing policies for immigrants. In the wake of the economic development, foreign labour forces started to flow into the Korean society regardless of Koreans’ deep-seated disapproval towards foreigners. Koreans, having achieved a certain level of economic growth, showed the tendency to shun away from the so-called 3D (Dirty, Difficult, and Dangerous) labour.
The shortage of 3D labour left the South Korean government with no choice but to look outwards, and this marked the beginning of an immigration wave of many foreign workers. The numbers kept increasing, and as of 2013, the number of foreign workers in the country reached 1.45 million. It is estimated that immigrants will make up 6 percent of the total population by 2030. Along with immigrant workers, foreign brides as a new phenomenon make an interesting feature of foreign immigration in Korea. They move to Korea for the purpose of marrying South Korean men in rural areas who find it hard to marry local women due to urbanisation. Unlike foreign workers who mostly stay in Korea temporarily, foreign brides are more a permanent form of foreign immigration.
Korea is becoming increasingly diverse in ethnicities, and this diversity makes it necessary for Koreans to recognise the immigrants’ heritage and the influence of this heritage on Korean society. Thus, searching for sound immigration models that fit Korea’s situation seems inevitable. While doing so, South Korean government should bear in mind that the ways we go about resolving this matter not only influence the formulation of immigration policies, but also contributes to the image the country projects to the world.
Immigration Models: Melting Pot or Salad Bowl?
To suggest an ideal model for Korea to take on, it is essential to start by going over existing models of immigration. The two most commonly adopted models include the assimilation model and the multiculturalism model. Two immigrant countries situated in North America have traditionally adopted each of the aforementioned models. Immigrants are an inseparable part of these countries, to the extent where explaining their development cannot be done without explaining the history of immigration.
The assimilation model, also known as incorporation or integration model is the official policy of many immigration countries. As the term implies, the assimilation model aims to integrate immigrants completely into the mainstream society. A case in point would be the United States. USA has taken the melting pot approach to assimilate immigrants by having them identify with their adopted country and by leaving the home country behind.
There are a number of social policies and programs organised and funded by the American government to help immigrants integrate. The two most prominent programs are Immigrant Head Start and Even Start Family Literacy Program. The Head Start Program is a special program carried out on the national level to help immigrant children and their families receive medical services. Another social infrastructure that facilitates the assimilation process is the language program. It attempts to provide English lessons not only to immigrant children, but also their parents. Although the ultimate decision to integrate is the immigrants’, the strong will and businesses of the government to assimilate immigrants has made America a united nation. It is true that today USA is tilting more towards multiculturalism than assimilation in appearance.
Immigration populations within USA are not fused to make one American culture, but rather they are turning American society into a multicultural mosaic. However, as proven in a survey released by the National Opinion Research Centre, USA is number one when it comes to national pride. Patriotism that is engraved in the American people’s mind is a great driving and binding force, and this cannot easily be seen in Canada.
On the other hand, multiculturalism, also called the salad bowl model is the polar opposite of assimilation. A well-known example of a multiculturalist nation would be Canada. The Canadian government encourages newcomers to hold on to their original cultures, traditions, and languages while adapting and settling into the Canadian society. As a result, the next generation is able to have their feet in two cultures and even be bilingual. Likewise, Canada aims at integrating the minority groups more into the Canadian society by giving them a sense of belonging. Its primary aim is identity incorporation, which means giving minority groups public recognition of their identities.
Yet, within the mainstream society, it is considered a Canadian thing to recognise the ethnic diversity. A reason behind their great execution of immigration policies has to do with the history of Canada. It started off as an immigrant nation and since then, immigration and accepting of different cultures has shaped its social, cultural and economic development.
Canada is among the world’s major immigrant-receiving countries, welcoming about 250,000 permanent residents and over 200,000 temporary foreign workers as well as international students annually.
However, multiculturalism is not without its weaknesses. While allowing diversity in the country promotes enrichment of different cultures and development of local communities, diversity can be detrimental to integration at the same time. It tends to reduce trust not only between ethnic groups but also within them, making it harder for the country to work in. Immigrants in Canada may have a hard time identifying themselves as Canadians. This is because Canada is commonly spoken as a country with no distinct culture, whereas America is known as a country of strong patriotism.
As Robert Putnam highlighted in his worldwide bestseller, Bowling Alone, “Inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbours, regardless of the colour of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends … and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.” As extreme as this may sound, this quote seems to well illustrate how diversity makes it hard for the society to become a cohesive unit.
What can Korea learn from these two countries?
The American government has a strong commitment to immigration and regards coexistence and multiculturalism as an entrenched value. Korean government also needs to play a leading role when it comes to establishing a ground for immigration. Strong policies and laws set by the government are necessary in stabilising immigration in Korea today. In addition, having a high level of pride and love for one’s country can also contribute to national competitiveness.
Canada’s immigration policies were only made possible because of the national trait of open-mindedness and acceptance. There is a national atmosphere of approval towards immigration and the inflow of foreign cultures. Canadians tend to consider immigration as a positive phenomenon, rather than an outlet for negativity. Many are in support and show a high level of reciprocal acceptance and this tendency can be found in a poll done by Focus Canada Series. The percentage of those who answered “Multiculturalism is crucial in forming the national identity of Canada” has spiked up from 74 percent in 1997 to 85 percent in 2003. Canada provides more educational opportunities for immigrant children.
How should Korea shape its policies?
Taking into account previously implemented policies in other countries; Korea needs to brace itself for an even greater influx of immigrants in the future. Both the government and citizens should work hand in hand to make Korea more diverse both inside and out.
In an interview with Professor Lee, an interesting variable was raised. Korean immigration policies can be differentiated from others in that the Korean government needs to take into account North Korea when making policies. Although the two countries are divided in half, there is still a room for reunification.
If that happens, Korea would have more than enough labour to account for its lack of a strong labour force, solving the problem from within. As can be seen from the example of China and Taiwan, there would be an active circulation of labour between the two countries. This leaves Korea with less motivation and responsibility to actively promote immigration. Some may even think that it would be beneficial for Korea to maintain its current immigrant policies and partially accept temporary workers for now. However, liberal immigration policies of Korean government are likely to attract more high-skilled individuals as well as investors, especially technology experts and entrepreneurs who can be a great asset for the country in the long run.
Globalisation affected in a way that foreigners are knocking on the door to Korea like they did to USA and Canada. Korea, in accordance with the global trend, feels a need to legally allow immigration of foreigners. The problem of a low birth rate and shortage of labour in Korea is expected to be dissolved by letting migrant workers in temporarily. As mentioned above, this questions the necessity of Korean immigration policy. Nonetheless, with the growing demand of policies vis-a-vis foreigners, it would be wise for Korean government to pursue an open door policy and form an administrative body exclusive for immigration. This ability to make policies is what makes the government still an essential actor on this matter. Nevertheless, even if Korean government publicises the legal acceptance of foreign workers, prejudice of people could be an obstacle to successful execution of immigration policies. As Professor Lee agrees with The UOS Times, laws and policies are hard to roll back once made and implemented. Perception of people, on the other hand, can change anytime in the absence of strong policies. Social perception can be easily affected, as evidenced from the case of Oh Won-choon and the subsequent change of perception towards ethnic Koreans. Therefore, Korean government and citizens need to work towards making and implementing of immigration policies.
Establishing an exclusive bureau for immigration seems like an important first step the Korean government needs to take in order to stabilise immigration in the country. The two aforementioned countries have both a bureau exclusive to immigration and many other social bureaus that are deeply involved with the well-being of immigrants. For an effective policy management, the bureau not only needs to be founded, but also be divided into two parts: policy-making and policy-enforcement. In Korea, matters related to immigration is dealt and managed by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, not a bureau made for immigration. Thus, the making of a bureau exclusive for this specific purpose would allow the government to efficiently and directly manage immigrants in Korea.
In terms of immigration models that Korean government can embrace, Civic Integration, a system adopted by many European countries including the Netherlands, seems like the best model for Korea. The Civic Integration model was devised to complement the side effects of the multiculturalism model. With the support of the government, immigrants do not feel the need to force themselves to integrate into the mainstream society and can choose to form their own ethnic enclaves.
This has resulted in an increasing unemployment rate and ghettoism of immigrants. Such weaknesses of the multiculturalism model led many nations to seek different immigration models and to eventually embrace some assimilationist features into their existing policies. The government endows right and duty to immigrants to actively and voluntarily incorporate into the mainstream society, and in return, enact policies such as anti-discrimination laws to help immigrants fit in. No country is a perfect multiculturalist or assimilationist country and Korea should shake off the burden of sticking with one of the two models to start with.
As much as the role of government and administrative bodies is important, what is even more crucial to a successful management of immigration is the people. Being a nation of single blood for 5000 years, Koreans lack a nature of openness and acceptance. What stands in the way of integration are racism and xenophobia that are apparent in the Korean society, especially among the older generation who are used to the Korean ways of thinking, eating, and living. Despite its high number of foreigners, Korea does not have any law or policy that effectively deals with racist actions and slurs against foreigners. Korea needs to be more accepting of differences and grow understanding of other cultures and ethnicities.
In this article, The UOS Times recognised the growing need of a liberal immigration policy that can help millions of immigrants once they land on Korean shores, and tried to give a solution of our own. Studying the existing models of immigration and the current situation of Korea, The UOS Times came to a conclusion that the strong role and commitment of both the government and people is fundamental to Korea. At this point, absence of a bureau dedicated to immigration seems like the biggest weakness of Korean immigration policy. By following the Civic Integration model, Korean government would be able to set directions for its immigration policies in the future. Along with the government, Korean citizens should have a tolerant attitude towards future Koreans and their cultures.