The number of foreign nationals in South Korea has more than doubled over the past two years to 2.42 million in August, according to data recently submitted by the Justice Ministry to a lawmaker. The figure accounted for nearly 4.7 percent of the country’s total population of 51.62 million.
About 1.25 million foreigners were registered residents living here for more than three months. The rest included those staying for a shorter period or Koreans with foreign nationalities.
More than 60 percent of foreign residents live in Seoul and its adjacent metropolitan areas including Gyeonggi Province. Nationwide, there are 82 municipalities where foreigners make up more than 5 percent of the population.
In 2018, South Korea became the world’s seventh country to achieve a population of more than 50 million and a per capita income over $30,000. One factor behind this remarkable accomplishment has been the growing presence of expatriates here.
Given the country’s gloomy long-term demographic projections, it is necessary to further boost the upward trend in the number of foreign residents.
Various types of government-funded programs have done little to raise Korea’s birthrate, which remains at one of the world’s lowest levels.
The number of newborns in the country slipped 10.9 percent from a year earlier to 24,408 in August, marking 41 consecutive months of on-year decline, according to government data released last week. The figure was the lowest for the month of August since the state statistics office began compiling related data in 1981.
With the fertility rate, which measures the average number of children per women aged 15-44, projected to be stuck below 1, Korea’s population is estimated to be 170,000 short of the optimal number needed to guarantee sustainable growth in 2045. The shortage will widen to 1.26 million in 2050, 3.51 million in 2060 and 7.8 million in 2080, according to estimates by Statistics Korea.
Some experts say the country should make efforts to increase the number of foreign residents to 3 million by 2030 to avoid the shortage of workforce due to the low birthrate coupled with the fast-aging population. A reduction in the number of working-age people will further reduce Korea’s sagging growth potential.
Expanding the presence of expatriates is essential to sustain the country’s demographic vitality and economic prosperity. They are no longer mere guests and should be allowed to join native Koreans in building a more harmonious and prosperous society. More effective support programs need to be implemented to help them adapt to and play meaningful roles.
In this regard, the Koreans should improve their perception and attitude toward migrant workers and other expatriates.
It is undesirable that some local people have hatred or repulsion toward foreigners, partly affected by reports of crimes involving them. Actually the crime rate is lower among foreigners than among native Koreans. According to a study by a state-run research institute on judicial policy, the number of criminal offenders arrested annually during the period of 2012-2016 averaged 1,441 per 100,000 foreigners, less than half the corresponding figure for local people at 3,368.
It is necessary to carry out educational programs to help Korean citizens accept differences with foreigners from various nations as positive and conducive to widening social diversity and inclusiveness. Such education needs to extend to families and regional communities beyond schools.
Efforts should be stepped up to stop violence against immigrant wives and reduce discrimination against migrant workers, many of whom are engaged in difficult and dangerous work shunned by Koreans.
It is also necessary to tackle problems regarding the growing number of illegal foreign workers in a more serious way. Local employers should be discouraged from employing and treating them inhumanely. Consideration may be given to legalizing the status of those who have worked here for a certain period of time without causing trouble.
In 2016, the Supreme Court here rightly ruled that basic labor rights should be guaranteed for foreign nationals working here illegally. Though lawbreaking should never be permitted, this approach, which is consistent with the principle of due reward for work, will help the country become an attractive place for more foreign workers, low-skilled and talented alike, to choose to work in.