Friday, September 04, 2009

South Korea's immigration future

The English-language edition of the Korea Times reported on an unsurprising prediction for the future.

The Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements (KRIHS) highlighted Thursday some of the nation's expected highs and lows in its latest report "Grand Vision 2050," aimed at helping the government plan ahead to accommodate upcoming socioeconomic changes.

[. . .]

The ageing population will also become a bigger problem.

The KRIHS predicted that 38.2 percent of the country's population will be aged 65 years and older by 2050 if the current low birth rate continues.

The total population of South and North Korea is expected to total 67 million, declining 6 million from the current figure, with the median age jumping to 56.7 years.

On the positive side of the demographic changes the report highlighted is the expected increase of the foreign population.

It forecast that expatriates would take up 9.8 percent of South Korea's population by 2050, stripping the country of its "racially homogenous" status.


Immigration to South Korea is another example, like Spain and Italy, of a traditionally labour-exporting country becoming a labour-importing one. As Young-bum Park observed in 2004, South Korea in the 1990s was caught up in the same consistent dynamic.

Due to its low unemployment rate, by the early 1990s South Korea realized it needed temporary labor to fill unskilled jobs that natives were becoming less and less willing to do. In fact, without foreign labor, it would have been nearly impossible to keep the "tiger" economy growing.

As a country that places a high value on its homogeneity, this also marked the beginning of a tension that continues today: the need for foreign labor versus the desire to remain a purely Korean nation with strict immigration policies.


One early source of immigration to South Korea was the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, an autonomous district in eastern Jilin province historically with a Korean majority. This became a minority owing to various factors including low birth rates, assimilation proceeded and emigration to Chinese cities and South Korea, the claims that Yanbian constituted a "Third Korea" aside. Perhaps ironically, Jeanyoung Lee reports that these immmigrants are somewhat unpopular, especially in the work environment.

Other nationalities began to feature in the country's statistics. The number of Mongolian immigrants began to grow sharply--a 2008 press report commented on a Mongolian-born Korean citizen who was now herself an immigration official. Other large groups included Vietnamese and Filipinos, often workers or as women recruited to marry local men. This latter in particular may as radically alter South Korea's ethnic composition, at least as it is perceived to be homogeneous. Many smaller nationalities are also present, such as Iranians. All of these migrants could be far outnumbered by North Korean migrants/refugees if/when that country collapses.

The South Korean immigration system is criticized by many. The three existing routes of becoming a guest worker in Japan have been crtiicized as restrictive and controlling, while elements of Korea's immigration system like detention centres have also been criticized. Even so, barring the rapid success of pro-natalist policies, immigration is going to be the only way to mitigate South Korea's rapid population aging. South Korea's wealth relative to its neighbours will serve both as pull and push factors, while the migration networks connecting South Korea to its various Asian neighbours will also certainly serve as enablers for future migration, regardless.

5 comments:

Cicerone said...

So what will happen if more and more countries want to join the immigration-club? The most recent entries were Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic. Now Japan and South Korea follow. How will China meet it's immigration needs. It's very certain that China will follow Japan and Korea in it's demography. China will be a developed country in 30-40 years. Then the TFR may have approached lowest-low-levels. It will be a very hard future for countries looking for immigrants.

Mexicos fertility is already lower than that of the USA, and if the Mexican economy would start to grow very fast in the next decades, many Mexicans will stay in their country. With Mexico beimg the main source for the USA, also the US will have to look for migrants, competing with East Asia and Europe.

So not only more and more Countries will need immigration, but also less countries will have the possibility of sending migrants. The Maghreb and Turkey are very important sources for Europe, but I think that their fertility will go below 1.5 in a few decades. South-East-Asia, with a robust, but not very hot economy may not send people abroad in a few decades, to meet their labor demand. So the only countries that are left are those in South Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. After 2030, I predict that Latin Americas fertility will soon approach levels that are common in developed catholic nations like Spain or Italy. After 2050 also the Midle East and South Asia won't be able anymore to send migrants, because the fertility sinkls also there. Maybe there will be a short spike in Middle East when the oil will run out, but there won't be much thereafter.

What is left now? Right, only Africa. It's demographic trends are positive, but noone knows if Africa will be the China of the middle 21st century?

Anonymous said...

It is very unlikely that TFR of China will be lower in 30 years than now with its one-child policy but most of the workers then have already been born so TFR at that moment in time is not that important.

Mexico is going to a troubling time at the moment, a bit to do with drugs and a lot to do with running out of oil. But i expect fast growth if they go through the troubles without too much damage. In 40 years they have the added bonus that they will have a big and poor country to supply their labour needs.

It wont take decades for the Magreb and Turkey to have a TFR of 1.5 or lower. With a few exceptions those numbers are reached because of postponement and if that postponement is not done quick you don't get those low TFR numbers.

Stands without the door said...

Brazil might entering a higher immigration stage in the near future. It could become a substantial immigration magnet within its region.

According to estimates from the statistical site of Brazil the total fertility rate is probably presently, and has been for a few years, below 2.0. TFR was estimated at 1.95 for 2007 and projected to be 1.86 for 2008.

Stands without the door said...

This link has the estimates about Brazil's TFR.

http://www.ibge.gov.br/english/presidencia/noticias/noticia_impressao.php?id_noticia=1272

Cicerone said...

Thanks a lot for that link. Looks like the Brazilian fertility is plummeting to Southern European levels. It's notable that the states Sao paulo and Rio De Janeiro are having TFRs in the range of 1.6.