People on the Move – Part II
People on the Move – Part II
SEOUL: In May the South Korean newspapers carried a story of a murder which, for all its brutality, was ordinary. What makes the report noteworthy is the relationship of the victim to the murderer and their nationality. A farmer in North Gyeongsang province brutally murdered his Vietnamese wife who had delivered a baby 19 days earlier. This murder tells a bigger story of Korea’s demographic transition and the challenges it poses to the society, economy and the country’s relations with the world.
This wasn’t the first such case. In 2010, another Vietnamese woman was murdered by her husband a week after their wedding. In 2008, a Vietnamese woman jumped from an apartment building to her death after suffering abuse from her husband and mother-in-law.
These murders in the normally peaceful countryside highlight the difficulties of establishing a multicultural society in a place with no history of one. Foreign wives are given permanent residence but not citizenship. They’re allowed to remain in South Korea indefinitely and work, but not vote or own property.
Despite a historic unease with outsiders, the reality is that South Korea’s birthrate is low and the country relies on immigrants for labor and spouses. Sex-selective abortions in the 1980s have had unintended consequences. There are now more men of marriageable age than there are women. South Korean men in rural areas turn to foreign brides as South Korean women generally find rural life undesirable. Newly arrived foreign women often find themselves in isolated settings, unable to communicate due to their lack of fluency in Korean and unfamiliar with the expectations for a Korean wife and daughter-in-law.
South Korea is not particularly amenable to ethnic diversity. Koreans are taught in school that their people have populated the peninsula from time immemorial and withstood colonial occupation and other forms of outside interference with their culture intact. Brian Myers, director of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, argues in his work The Cleanest Race that it wasn’t until the arrival of the Japanese in the late 19th century that a uniquely Korean identity formed in both emulation of and opposition to the colonial presence. Contact with Chinese and Japanese invaders created a mixed bloodline.
South Korea’s birthrate simply fails to keep up with its needs, in part because raising children in South Korea is expensive. South Koreans spend more per capita on education than citizens of any other country. The low birthrate, about 1.16 births per woman aged 15 to 49, has led to a disproportionately large older population. The population under 15 years old decreased by 6.8 percent during the past five years. As the baby boomer generation retires, the pace of societal aging will accelerate.
The aging is having an impact on South Korea’s food supply. With a population of 48 million, the mountainous country is one of the densest places on earth. But the countryside is emptying while cities like Seoul swell beyond their capacity. Away from the bright lights of Seoul, rural South Korea is hit by the new pressures.
Meanwhile, South Korean corporations energetically pursue land for food production in undeveloped countries, mostly in Africa. They often operate with the support of the South Korean government, particularly the state-owned Korea Rural Development Corporation and Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corporation. The most infamous example of this was Daewoo Logistics’ failed attempt at procuring 3.2 million acres of Madagascar for agriculture. Under the deal, Daewoo would have paid nothing for the land rights; the only benefit to Madagascar would have been employment opportunities. The proposed deal sparked protests and contributed to the overthrow of Madagascar’s president. His replacement promptly canceled the deal.
The number of South Korean farm households declined from 2.5 million in 1970 to less than 1.3 million in 2005. Free-trade policies, specifically South Korea’s joining of the World Trade Organization in 1995 and 2004 liberalization of rice imports have made it harder for South Korean farmers to get by – though domestic rice prices are much higher than world prices. As a large portion of farms are maintained by older South Koreans, the number of productive farms is expected to continue dropping.
With demographic patterns like these, South Korea is hardly an anomaly among developed countries. Much of the world’s population growth takes place in poorer countries while developed societies have slow or negative rates of growth. At first glance, a solution to problems like rural depopulation and labor shortages is to encourage immigration. But that presents problems of integration, especially in countries with ethnic homogeneity like South Korea.
South Korea may benefit from liberalizing its immigration policies, but that option is unpopular. And the government makes little effort to sell its citizens on the benefits of more open borders.
The few experiments with bringing in outsiders haven’t been all that successful. South Korea has a program that allows labor migration in the manufacturing, construction and agriculture sectors – jobs that South Koreans aren’t lining up for. The Employee Permit System allows workers sponsored by a South Korean company to enter on three-year visas. Migrants are then tied to that firm and find it difficult to switch workplaces if they’re unpaid or mistreated in the workplace, as commonly reported. Amnesty International pressures the South Korean government to reform the system, asking that migrants be granted full rights to unionize, greater flexibility to change workplaces and an official channel to seek recourse from employers who cut or withhold wages.
Migrant workers make a convenient scapegoat for politicians. In the midst of the economic crisis of 2008, the government ordered a crackdown on migrant workers, claiming they occupied jobs that could be filled by South Koreans. Deportations increased and the number of permits granted to foreigners who enter on E-9 and H-2 visas for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, respectively, was cut from more than 100,000 in 2008 to 34,000 in 2009. By June 2009, all 34,000 visas had been issued, creating a labor shortage in the construction and manufacturing industries, which hampered production.
The country remains generally resistant to foreign influences and a changing South Korean identity. At present, there are no government programs to educate full South Koreans on accepting different cultures. There’s no path to citizenship for migrants, and foreigners are treated as temporary guests in the country. According to Kim Hee-kyung, director of Advocacy for Save the Children Korea, the government should create programs that encourage the coexistence of various cultures within South Korean society.
“Usually mixed children don’t recognize that they’re different; they are categorized as being different,” she said. “There is no education to teach these children about different cultures, that their culture is okay, that there are many cultures in the world. The government always says that Korean is the only one, that they should learn the Korean way of thinking.” South Korea’s natural and human limitations are forcing a reluctant transition from ethnically homogeneous to multiethnic society. And the government’s efforts to facilitate this process are thought by many to be inadequate.
Foreign wives, farmers and migrant workers struggle to adjust to new circumstances brought on by intensifying global interconnectedness. South Korea’s challenge entails integrating those left behind by globalization in the new economy. To remain competitive and content, South Korea must cease allowing ideas of ethnic purity to guide its public policy.