In 2019, Korea's birthrate dropped to 0.92, the lowest it's ever been, while in November of the same year, deaths outnumbered births for the first time in the nation's history. These and many other stats show that the Korean population is declining, a dire problem that must be addressed. Maintaining population growth is paramount to sustaining economic growth; hence Korea must take measures to reverse this downward trend.
Korea can do so by accepting more immigrants, but before opening its borders, the nation must first address the underlying discrimination against foreigners in Korea. Ignoring the discrimination issue and admitting more foreigners, just to make up for a population drop, is not the right way to approach the issue of population decline.
Korea must eradicate the often overlooked discrimination against non-Koreans and transform into a country where immigrants can integrate themselves as rightful members of society. The government must enact immigration-friendly laws and abolish existing discriminative laws towards non-Koreans, and at the same time, the Korean people must acknowledge non-Koreans as fellow Koreans.
The government and the people working together to embrace people of different ethnic background will not only solve the population issue but also set the foundation for Korea to become a world-class nation.
A survey conducted by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions showed that about half of the immigrant workers in Korea work over the legal 52 hours per week and that three out of 10 are paid less than the minimum wage. Many Koreans view immigrants as a nuisance who are taking away jobs from Koreans, but few are aware of the fact that many foreign workers are mistreated and sometimes even abused by their employers.
By law, these victims of abuse are prohibited from changing workplaces freely and have to put in a request to change workplaces. The caveat is that they have to prove that the employer either assaulted them or withheld wages. If the request is denied, the immigrants are classified as undocumented workers, and out of this fear, most victims of abuse choose to stay silent. The law which should guarantee and protect a person's rights, regardless of skin color, thrusts non-Korean workers into forced labor, and egregious violation of labor and basic human rights.
The government must abolish such laws and create an environment where immigrants can speak out freely, which the government has begun to do. The Korean Immigration Service (KIS) has set up a foreign-resident based advisory group that can provide opinions of immigration policies and propose initiatives from an immigrant's point of view. Seoul city's recent decision to provide disaster relief funds to non-citizens, along with the KIS's decision to stop using the term "alien" in foreigners' ID cards, are also steps in the right direction which the government must continue to take.
Eliminating discrimination cannot be achieved by the government's actions alone. The next step is for the Korean people to acknowledge immigrants as equal fellow citizens.
A survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2019 showed that 46 percent of Koreans were proud to maintain a "homogenous bloodline" and 35 percent believed accepting people of different ethnicity will undermine national unity. These alarming numbers show that Korea is still very ethnocentric, lacking tolerance and diversity. Even with about 3.4 million foreign residents in Korea, not a small number, few Koreans are aware of the prevalent prejudice against foreigners.
Many Koreans quickly judge foreigners from underdeveloped nations by their looks, attire, and accent. Women of in migrant marriages are often disregarded as low-class people who married older, unpopular Korean men merely for financial reasons. Such assumptions of social superiority only prolong the distortion of non-Koreans being inferior and only prevent immigrants from finding their place in Korea.
Koreans must first acknowledge that racial discrimination exists in Korea and stop judging foreigners solely by their appearance. Next, Koreans must reach out to non-Koreans while trying to see things from the foreigner's perspective. Doing so can build trust and an understanding between the two parties which will lead to more Koreans embracing foreigners rather than excluding them as outsiders.
The modern era has witnessed the slavery trade, wars within and between nations, genocide, protests and riots, all in the name of maintaining pure-blood and racial superiority. These are issues that Koreans have yet to face head-on, so they must learn from the past mistakes of others and make sure such atrocities do not take place in Korea. Though equality between Koreans and non-Koreans cannot be achieved overnight, it is something Korea must strive for.
Many countries have benefited from accepting immigrants and Korea can do the same by taking advantage of all the diverse knowledge and experience that immigrants have to offer. The government and the people must put an end to discriminate against foreigners, only then receive more immigrants, not just as a temporary labor force or a solution to the population decline, but as rightful residents.
Immigration is more than just an antidote for the declining population issue. Rather it is a necessary step for Korea to take in order to evolve into a tolerant, multiethnic nation.
Park Han-dol is a student at Korea National Open University.