[Column] The trouble with the Korean justice minister’s immigration philosophy

Posted on : 2023-08-31 16:55 KST Modified on : 2023-08-31 16:55 KST
If Korea wants immigrants to integrate into society, it needs to guarantee them basic rights and securities afforded to Koreans
Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon speaks at the 45th Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry Jeju Forum on July 15. (courtesy of the KCCI)
Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon speaks at the 45th Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry Jeju Forum on July 15. (courtesy of the KCCI)

By Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov), professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo

I am what you might call a double immigrant. A naturalized citizen of South Korea, I am also an immigrant laborer in Norway. Perhaps because of this, I read articles about immigration policy in newspapers day in and day out.

As part of this commitment, I perused the lecture Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon gave on July 15 regarding the current administration’s immigration policy at the 45th Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry Jeju Forum. Probably the only thing I could agree with from this lecture was the statement that without immigration, South Korea has no future. In a country with the lowest birth rate in the world, I doubt anyone would object to this view. The problem is, as long as the lack of understanding and common sense about immigration issues Han demonstrated in his lecture remains the keynote of South Korea’s immigration policy, the integration of immigrants — without whom Korea may not have a future — into our society will never come to pass.

Han claimed that foreigners who maintain their culture and live among themselves “fail to integrate into” the country they immigrated to. “Fluent Korean speakers are preferable to skilled welders as incoming immigrants,” he said. But do most immigrants speak their new country’s language fluently? Once a student at Columbia University in the US, Han must have personally witnessed ethnic Korean enclaves in the US like Koreatown in New York. The reason overseas Koreans settle down in such ethnic enclaves early on in their immigration journey is identical to the reason Korean Chinese settle down in the Daerim neighborhood in Yeongdeungpo when they arrive in Seoul: because going through the process of acclimating to life in a foreign country is easier when done in close proximity to the language and cultural environment one is familiar with. This is merely something immigrants in many countries around the world commonly experience.

The question is, why don’t immigrants learn enough Korean to be able to leave their respective ethnic enclaves after several years of living in Korea? In order to answer this question, I have been conducting field studies at Koryoin (Kairesky) enclaves in South Korea, such as the Koryoin village in the Wolgok neighborhood of Gwangju and the Koryoin town in Hambak Village, Incheon.

The people there gave me only one explanation. Almost 70% of Koryoin who immigrated to South Korea worked backbreaking, low-paying jobs with long hours. Many of them had to pick up extra work and work overtime in order to pay exorbitant rents. As they came home from work late at night dog-tired and even had to work during the weekends on occasions, they absolutely didn’t have enough time to learn Korean. If the South Korean government provided affordable public housing to these immigrants, they could probably work less and devote more time to learning Korean. However, not only did the Yoon Suk-yeol administration cut the budget for public housing to 22.7% of what it used to be, the government doesn’t even count immigrants as beneficiaries of housing welfare in the first place. Considering this, wouldn’t it be absurd to demand immigrants to learn Korean?

Han went further, stating, “Unskilled foreign workers who come to South Korea on E-9 visas try to stay in the country illegally, as the visa expires after 10 years,” adding that “laborers who work and serve South Korea faithfully for 10 years have settlement rights and will be given the opportunity to earn E-7-4 skilled worker visas with which they can invite family members” in front of business owners gathered in the lecture hall.

But let’s turn this statement on its head. Before they can obtain the opportunity to earn an E-7-4 visa that comes with the ability to invite their family members to South Korea, foreign workers have to “work and serve South Korea faithfully for 10 years” — not even with family members by their side. Those on E-9 visas, which Han mentioned, cannot invite family members to live with them in South Korea, and while some “unskilled foreign workers” do live with their family in South Korea, this is accomplished through illegal means or by “cheating the system,” so to speak.

I want to ask Han whether he could live and work in a foreign country for 10 years while separated from his spouse and his underage children. If he doesn’t think he could do this himself, he shouldn’t impose the pain of family separation on others so easily. Alternatively, the Employment Permit System, which greatly limits the freedom of foreign workers, could be abolished, and foreign workers could be issued employment visas that grant them settlement rights and the right to bring along family members to South Korea. But conservative bureaucrats including Han continue to cling to the Employment Permit System, which human rights groups have called “modern-day slavery.” For them, their right to “control” these laborers is more important than the human rights of laborers who “work and serve South Korea faithfully.”

While foreign workers are objects of control in Han’s conception, the business owners who employ them are part of the network that controls them. Han asked business owners gathered at Jeju Forum to “recommend” workers they’ve known for 10 years who “deserve to be switched over to skilled worker visas.” If changes in visa status are contingent on employer recommendation, how would this impact workplace dynamics?

As most foreign workers do not belong to labor unions, they are unable to receive assistance from labor unions when they need it. Workplace transfers are allowed upon expiration or termination of employment contracts or under very special circumstances. In other words, foreign workers are at the mercy of their employers. If, on top of this, employers are given the authority to recommend candidates for visa changes, there’s no telling how much worse abuse of power by employers might get. Han even mentioned how fierce the competition for talent acquisition is in foreign countries, but how many foreign talents would really want to stay in South Korea for work when the extent to which their employers could exploit them is limitless?

If South Korea truly wants to attract talent and accomplish the social integration of its immigrants, it should ease immigration control, abolish the Employment Permit System, introduce employment visas that guarantee labor, family accompaniment, and workplace transfer rights, and provide welfare benefits including housing to immigrants. More than anything, instead of simply viewing foreigners as “manpower” like Han, we should view immigrants who come to Korea as our equals as well as neighbors who have all the social rights that we have regardless of their national origin, religion, and descent.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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