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Korea’s Migrants: Towards Diversity and Transnationalism

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People walking at night in Myeongdong district of Seoul, South Korea
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A special section in the latest issue of the journal Asian Survey, coedited by APARC and the Korea Program Director Gi-Wook Shin, suggests a new framework in both social discourse and policy that reflects the varied complexities of Korea’s increasingly diverse migrants and that charts a course forward for a nation that is staring into a demographic abyss.

South Korea (hereafter Korea) is widely regarded as among the world’s most ethnically and linguistically homogeneous countries. In 1990, Korea counted only 49,000 foreigners amongst its population. But over the last two decades, the number of migrants in the country has grown dramatically, reaching 2.3 million (or 4.5% of the population) in 2018. Just as important is the growing diversity of migrants coming to Korea. In addition to unskilled workers and marriage migrants from developing countries, they increasingly include skilled migrant workers and marriage migrants from a range of developed Western countries.

These more recent migrant groups, however, do not fit into the dominant framework of Korean multiculturalism, and often remain invisible in Korean society, facing discrimination and largely left out of social discourse and government policy. For a nation that is aging faster than any other developed country and that struggles with weak global talent competitiveness, it is crucial to better understand the growing heterogeneity and complexity of migrants beyond their dichotomized depictions as Korean versus non-Korean in ethnicity and citizenship.

This is the focus of a special section in the July/August 2019 issue of the journal Asian Survey, titled Korea’s Migrants: From Homogeneity to Diversity. Coedited by APARC and the Korea Program Director Gi-Wook Shin and former Koret Fellow in Korean Studies Rennie J. Moon (now associate professor at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College), the special section collects articles that examine issues of class and highlight the contributions of migrants from both human and social capital perspectives, with an eye to a better appreciation of the values of diversity and transnationalism. “By doing so,” write Shin and Moon, “we aim to provide a better understanding of the varied experiences, realities, and complexities of Korea’s increasingly diverse migrant groups” and to “suggest a new framework in both social discourse and policy that reflects these complexities.” The articles in the special collections were originally presented and discussed at the Korea Program’s ninth annual Koret Workshop.

Diversity within Korea’s Migrant Groups

To capture the diversity and complexity of Korea’s migrants, Shin and Moon say, scholars need to examine within-group variation. The papers in the special section do so with respect to three migrant groups—marriage migrants, return migrants, and skilled labor—by focusing on nontraditional, relatively under-researched, highly skilled populations, mostly from developed countries, within those groups:

University of Sheffield scholar Sarah A. Son studies cross-border marriages between Korean men and Anglophone women, and shows that these Western women have very different experiences and social expectations compared with Asian female marriage migrants from developing countries. Western women bring greater perceived socioeconomic equality to the relationship by virtue of their economic position, education, and cultural background, and do not fit the common description of Asian female marriage migrants as representative of hypergamy (marrying a partner of higher social status). They also do not conform to the Korean state’s vision of social integration and resist its policy provisions to a greater degree than Asian marriage migrants. In fact, multiculturalism policy has failed to engage this Western migrant group.

What does it mean to be a skilled migrant returnee in Korea? Singapore Management University Research Fellow and former APARC Visiting Scholar Jane Yeonjae Lee provides an answer to this question by looking at the varying experiences and coping strategies of Korean returnees from New Zealand. She finds that, thanks to their educational and economic status, they fare better than traditional ethnic Korean return migrants, who experience hardships due to their status as unskilled labor. However, the process of skill transfer is not easy, and most of the skilled returnees are not fully accepted as Korean, experiencing some degree of alienation and disconnection based on their “overseas Korean” identities. In addition to greater social acceptance of skilled returnees, Lee argues, Korea needs a better policy mechanism for sustaining return migration.

Lastly, Shin, Moon, and former Koret Fellow in Korean Studies Joon Nak Choi (now an adjunct assistant professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s School of Business Management) focus on elite groups of skilled labor migrants, particularly foreign students studying in Korea and foreign professionals the country imports as skilled labor. The three authors aruge that Korea has largely failed to leverage the potential of these migrant groups, and that it must pay close attention paticularly to their human and social capital potential.

Migrants’ human capital stems from their specialized skills acquired through education, training, and work experience, which can benefit especially Korea’s small- and medium-sized firms. Their social capital is the value they can provide through their social ties that spread information and innovations and that form “transnational bridges” between Korea and their home countries. Social capital is especially advantageous for Korea’s large firms that compete in global markets.

The authors stress the need for Korea to develop a new policy framework, known as study-work framework, for cultivating social capital for skilled foreigners while in Korea. If Korea is to meet the challenges associated with its aging, depopulation, shrinking workforce, and weak position in the global war for mobile skilled talent, then it must “better appreciate the value of the cultural diversity [migrants] bring to its society and economy, as well as their human and social capital contributions.”


View the complete special section >>

Learn more about Shin’s and Moon’s related joint research project Migration, Cultural Diversity, and Tolerance >>