A recent report on the country’s immigration policy should draw attention from the public as well as government policymakers as a catalyst for their far-sighted views on how to secure long-term sustainable growth and social vitality.
The report, submitted by the Migration Research and Training Center to the Justice Ministry, proposed increasing the number of foreign nationals here, which stood at 1.44 million last year, to 3 million by 2030. If not, the paper predicted, the nation would begin to suffer from a severe workforce shortage, which would further decelerate its economic growth.
There have been a series of warnings of a possible demographic disaster.
With the fertility rate stuck at the current level of 1.24 children per woman, the estimated population will be 170,000 short of the optimal population needed to guarantee sustainable growth in 2045. The shortage will expand to 1.26 million in 2050, 3.51 million in 2060 and 7.8 million in 2080, according to Statistics Korea.
The number of economically active people aged 15-64, which stood at 35.98 million in 2010, is projected to decrease by more than 7 million over the coming three decades and by another 7 million in the following 20 years. Working-age people are forecast to account for less than half the population by 2060, meaning that they will have to support the same number of elderly persons and children.
The expected shrinkage of the workforce has been cited as a main factor in many predictions that the nation’s potential growth rate will continue to decline from the current level of 3.4 percent in the coming decades. What is the most alarming to Koreans is last year’s forecast by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that the rate for the country will fall to 1 percent by 2031, the lowest among the 34 OECD member states except for Luxemburg.
In June last year, Korea became the world’s seventh country with a population of more than 50 million to have its per capita income exceed $20,000. A growing number of expatriates here have contributed to the nation achieving these landmark figures. Without their continued role, it would be difficult for the country to maintain this status in future.
Many experts here note Korea seems to be in a situation similar to one that Japan faced before entering a decades-long recession in the early 1990s, calling for strengthened efforts to avoid following the course of its neighbor. The new Japanese government is trying to revive the economy by easing monetary policy and expanding fiscal support to boost the construction and manufacturing sectors. Observers are still not convinced that these measures will work, because of Japan’s gloomy demographic outlook overshadowed by rapidly aging and shrinking population.
Korea is urged to overhaul its system and policies on immigration and expatriates residing here. The overlapped work handled by many government agencies should be merged and streamlined. For that purpose, it may be necessary to set up an independent agency in charge of immigration and support for expatriates. A comprehensive law should be enacted to incorporate various existing laws on accepting immigrants and refugees.
More efforts should be made to attract highly skilled foreign workers to help keep the country’s growth engine moving. A serious consideration should be given to a proposal by the migration research center to permit foreigners who have stayed here for more than 10 years to apply for permanent residency.
Under changing demographic conditions, Koreans need to redefine the concept of their common community as the one embracing the growing number of expatriates. They are no longer mere guests to the country but should be allowed to join native Koreans in building a prosperous society.
It may be said that Korea will come to have a truly bright future, when more foreigners want to immigrate to and settle in the country.