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[INTERVIEW] 'Korea's population outlook makes immigration talk inevitable'

Korea Immigration Service Commissioner Cha Gyu-geun speaks during an interview at his office in the Government Complex in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, June 29. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
Korea Immigration Service Commissioner Cha Gyu-geun speaks during an interview at his office in the Government Complex in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, June 29. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min

By Jung Min-ho

GWACHEON ― Without the inflow of foreign workers, Korea is already shrinking.

After deaths outnumbered births for the first time in November 2019, the gap has widened since. A chronically low birthrate, which hit an all-time low of 0.92 that year, suggests that the trend is only going to accelerate and that the country will face massive labor shortages in the decades to come if nothing changes.

Years of government efforts to reverse the trend have been futile, leaving the country with the difficult choice of enduring the shock of a rapid decrease in the population or turning to immigration.

Without immigration, the risk is that the population will continue to decrease and fail to provide enough taxpayers to fund social welfare and medical costs that will grow as the country ages.

Cha Gyu-geun, commissioner of the Korea Immigration Service (KIS), says the time has come to face that reality and the country, at the very least, should start discussing the issue openly before it is too late.

"It is time for us to discuss and prepare for this inevitable issue," Cha said in an interview at his office in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, June 29. "Compared with people in countries that have a long history of accepting immigrants, Koreans tend to be more cautious."

Immigration is a politically unpopular issue in Korea. While conservatives worry "too many immigrants" may change their old way of life here, liberals feel that immigrants have caused a depression in wages and more competition for jobs. Such resistance has grown stronger in certain industries, such as construction, with unions demanding more jobs for Koreans.

If Korea is to be successful in embracing more immigrants, it is critical to convince its citizens that they are their partners ― not rivals ― who are contributing to the success of Korea alongside them, Cha said.

"In the case of Taiwan, employers in certain industries have to pay more for hiring foreigners. The amount is determined by how much competition there is with locals," he said. "With all the money, the government has set up a fund to help the administrative work for foreigners and local people who are visually impaired. Such a system can create a sense of unity, something Korea can take lessons from."

In a survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2019, 46 percent of Koreans said the country should be proud of maintaining a "homogeneous bloodline," and 35 percent said accepting people of different races undermined national unity.

Expats in Korea are no longer 'aliens'

As part of its effort to create a more inclusive environment for everyone, the KIS has recently decided to drop the term "alien" from the ID cards for foreign residents and replace it with a more neutral term.

The decision will change the name of the Alien Registration Card after 54 years.

"I thought it would be meaningful to give a message of unity by changing the term," Cha said.

It was one of many petitions that could have been left unnoticed if he had not paid attention to the "routinely ignored" ones.

"The idea of changing the term had already been reviewed in the past and the KIS concluded at one point that change was unnecessary because many countries still used the same term for their ID cards for foreigners. But I felt something in the term was not right," he noted.

"I asked our expat advisory group to review that idea. Most of them said they felt excluded or discriminated against every time they see their ID cards. So I pushed for the change."

Since last year, the KIS has run an advisory group of expats who share opinions about its policies and offer new ideas. Cha said he will continue to listen to their voices in the process of making polices that affect them the most.

Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min

Amnesty scheme for undocumented immigrants ends successfully

More than 41,000 undocumented foreign nationals living in Korea have left the country ― or have promised to do so soon ― under a special amnesty plan, Cha said.

Under the program (run from Dec. 11 to June 30), more than 10 percent of the estimated 390,000 illegal immigrants here have left or expressed a willingness to leave. So far, about 30,000 of them have actually departed due to international travel restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those who voluntarily returned to their home countries will be allowed to reenter Korea.

Speaking of those suspicious of "the government's motives" behind the policy, Cha said one of the goals of the amnesty was to build trust with the foreign community here.

"As long as they have the confirmation documents issued by the government, they will have no problem getting entry permits," Cha said.

"If they come here and leave within the authorized period, they may be allowed to receive multiple-entry visas for their next visit. I believe we can build trust with them through this step-by-step process."

68 foreigners deported for violating quarantine rules

Cha said one of the most daunting tasks for the KIS this year has been to handle the coronavirus crisis.

Facing the disease that can be contracted from people showing no symptoms, it is critical for everyone to follow the government's health measures, including the 14-day self-quarantine rule.

As of June 26, 68 foreigners have been deported for violating the rules. While 40 people were forced to leave for refusing to comply with the rules at airports, others were sent back after being caught breaking the rules at their residences or state-run facilities.

"It has been difficult for me to make such decisions," Cha said. "They could be K-pop fans or have important businesses in Korea.

"But for the sake of everyone else, the decisions were necessary, and the KIS will continue to respond strongly to rule violations during the pandemic. So please respect the rules."


Korea Immigration Service Commissioner Cha Gyu-geun speaks during an interview at his office in the Government Complex in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, June 29. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
Korea Immigration Service Commissioner Cha Gyu-geun speaks during an interview at his office in the Government Complex in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, June 29. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min

By Jung Min-ho

GWACHEON ― Without the inflow of foreign workers, Korea is already shrinking.

After deaths outnumbered births for the first time in November 2019, the gap has widened since. A chronically low birthrate, which hit an all-time low of 0.92 that year, suggests that the trend is only going to accelerate and that the country will face massive labor shortages in the decades to come if nothing changes.

Years of government efforts to reverse the trend have been futile, leaving the country with the difficult choice of enduring the shock of a rapid decrease in the population or turning to immigration.

Without immigration, the risk is that the population will continue to decrease and fail to provide enough taxpayers to fund social welfare and medical costs that will grow as the country ages.

Cha Gyu-geun, commissioner of the Korea Immigration Service (KIS), says the time has come to face that reality and the country, at the very least, should start discussing the issue openly before it is too late.

"It is time for us to discuss and prepare for this inevitable issue," Cha said in an interview at his office in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, June 29. "Compared with people in countries that have a long history of accepting immigrants, Koreans tend to be more cautious."

Immigration is a politically unpopular issue in Korea. While conservatives worry "too many immigrants" may change their old way of life here, liberals feel that immigrants have caused a depression in wages and more competition for jobs. Such resistance has grown stronger in certain industries, such as construction, with unions demanding more jobs for Koreans.

If Korea is to be successful in embracing more immigrants, it is critical to convince its citizens that they are their partners ― not rivals ― who are contributing to the success of Korea alongside them, Cha said.

"In the case of Taiwan, employers in certain industries have to pay more for hiring foreigners. The amount is determined by how much competition there is with locals," he said. "With all the money, the government has set up a fund to help the administrative work for foreigners and local people who are visually impaired. Such a system can create a sense of unity, something Korea can take lessons from."

In a survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2019, 46 percent of Koreans said the country should be proud of maintaining a "homogeneous bloodline," and 35 percent said accepting people of different races undermined national unity.

Expats in Korea are no longer 'aliens'

As part of its effort to create a more inclusive environment for everyone, the KIS has recently decided to drop the term "alien" from the ID cards for foreign residents and replace it with a more neutral term.

The decision will change the name of the Alien Registration Card after 54 years.

"I thought it would be meaningful to give a message of unity by changing the term," Cha said.

It was one of many petitions that could have been left unnoticed if he had not paid attention to the "routinely ignored" ones.

"The idea of changing the term had already been reviewed in the past and the KIS concluded at one point that change was unnecessary because many countries still used the same term for their ID cards for foreigners. But I felt something in the term was not right," he noted.

"I asked our expat advisory group to review that idea. Most of them said they felt excluded or discriminated against every time they see their ID cards. So I pushed for the change."

Since last year, the KIS has run an advisory group of expats who share opinions about its policies and offer new ideas. Cha said he will continue to listen to their voices in the process of making polices that affect them the most.

Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min

Amnesty scheme for undocumented immigrants ends successfully

More than 41,000 undocumented foreign nationals living in Korea have left the country ― or have promised to do so soon ― under a special amnesty plan, Cha said.

Under the program (run from Dec. 11 to June 30), more than 10 percent of the estimated 390,000 illegal immigrants here have left or expressed a willingness to leave. So far, about 30,000 of them have actually departed due to international travel restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those who voluntarily returned to their home countries will be allowed to reenter Korea.

Speaking of those suspicious of "the government's motives" behind the policy, Cha said one of the goals of the amnesty was to build trust with the foreign community here.

"As long as they have the confirmation documents issued by the government, they will have no problem getting entry permits," Cha said.

"If they come here and leave within the authorized period, they may be allowed to receive multiple-entry visas for their next visit. I believe we can build trust with them through this step-by-step process."

68 foreigners deported for violating quarantine rules

Cha said one of the most daunting tasks for the KIS this year has been to handle the coronavirus crisis.

Facing the disease that can be contracted from people showing no symptoms, it is critical for everyone to follow the government's health measures, including the 14-day self-quarantine rule.

As of June 26, 68 foreigners have been deported for violating the rules. While 40 people were forced to leave for refusing to comply with the rules at airports, others were sent back after being caught breaking the rules at their residences or state-run facilities.

"It has been difficult for me to make such decisions," Cha said. "They could be K-pop fans or have important businesses in Korea.

"But for the sake of everyone else, the decisions were necessary, and the KIS will continue to respond strongly to rule violations during the pandemic. So please respect the rules."


Jung Min-ho mj6c2@koreatimes.co.kr

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