Migration Policies of Korea: Integration and Exclusion

Kim, Sagang (Research Fellow at the Migration and Human Rights Institute)



Korea transformed from a migrant-sending country to a migrant-receiving country in the late 1980s. In the 1960s and 1970s, it sent coal miners and nurses to West Germany and construction workers to the Middle East. Yet, the formal labor export scheme had ended by the mid-1980s, when Korea underwent rapid economic growth. The structural changes in the Korean economy and a demographic transition resulted in labor shortages in certain sectors of industry and a consequent demand for migrant labor. From the late 1980s, migrant workers started to come to Korea and from the mid-1990s, marriage migrants, most of whom were women, began to enter Korea.

At first, , there was no formal labor migration system in Korea, let alone an official immigration policy. Migrant workers were considered temporary stayers rather than long-term settlers. Also, there was widespread widespread concern that immigration would cause a social and economic burden on Korean society. For these reasons, when the government introduced a formal labor migration system, it designed the system as a short-term rotation under which long-term stay, family reunion, and settlement of migrant workers were not permitted. The social integration of migrant workers was not taken into account in the process of policy making.

However, the emergence of marriage migrants made the Korean government change its stance on immigration. Unlike migrant workers, marriage migrants and their children were considered to live in Korea permanently, thus their integration became an important policy issue. Consequently, the government decided to implement comprehensive immigration and integration policies. Yet, the policies were formulated to divide migrants into desirable and undesirable groups, and only welcome and integrate the former group while discriminating and excluding the latter.

In this article, I will briefly show the current state of migration to Korea. Then I will examine Korea’s immigration and integration policies and look into how those policies have been implemented for different groups of migrants. In conclusion, I will argue for more humane and inclusive migration policies for all migrants.


Current State of Migration to Korea

The number of foreigners staying in Korea has increased quite rapidly over 25 years. The number was less than 50,000 in 1990, but it reached over one million in 2007 and now it is almost 2 million, which accounts for 3.6 percent of Korea’s total population (Figure 1). Excluding short-term visitors and counting long-term migrants and naturalized immigrants puts the figure at 1.6 million, which is about three percent of the total population. The proportion is still small compared to other migrant-receiving countries, especially countries in Europe and North America, but it is relatively large for countries like Korea where a strong sense of ethnic homogeneity has been maintained as the national identity.

Most of the migrants come from neighboring Asian countries. As shown in Figure 2, more than 50 percent of all migrants are from China, with ethnic Koreans from China accounting for two-thirds of all Chinese migrants. Except for some of the developed countries, the top 20 countries with the most migrants are the countries that signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Korea to send their workers for unskilled jobs. As a result, about 30 percent of all migrants in Korea are unskilled workers with a work visa.

Korea’s Migration and Integration Policies

The Korean government has three separate but related policies on migration, and those are labor migration policy, multicultural family support policy, and immigration policy. The target group of labor migration policy is unskilled migrant workers, and the policy deals with the recruitment, admission, employment, management, and protection of unskilled migrant workers. Labor migration policy is based on the Act on Foreign Workers’ Employment, etc., and the Ministry of Labor holds the main responsibility for for implementing the policy.

Multicultural family support policy is for marriage migrants and their families. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is in charge of this policy. Based on this policy, Multicultural Family Support Centers have been founded in almost all municipalities in Korea to provide various services and programs for marriage migrants and their families. However, the legal definition of a multicultural family is a family composed of a marriage migrant and a Korean spouse and their children, according to the Multicultural Families Support Act. Therefore, families of a migrant couple cannot receive any support or services from the Multicultural Family Support Centers.

The need for a comprehensive immigration policy began to be discussed in the mid-2000s, when Korea was expected to become a multicultural society through the growing number of migrants. Immigration policy was first established and implemented from 2008, aiming to integrate migrants into Korean society. According to the Framework Act on Treatment of Foreigners Residing in the Republic of Korea, the Ministry of Justice is in charge of developing a master plan for immigration policy every five years. The first master plan was implemented from 2008 to 2012, and from 2013 till now the second master plan is being carried out.

There are five policy goals in the second basic plan. The first one is openness, that is, Korea should open its border to attract more migrants. Yet, the open border policy only applies to professionals, skilled workers, business persons, investors, international students, and tourists, while excluding unskilled workers, marriage migrants, and asylum seekers. The second goal is social integration. The official social integration program was implemented in 2009, and now there are more than 300 program-operating institutions around the country. According to the plan, social integration should include all migrants living in Korea, but in practice, only “desirable” or “fit” migrants are included. There are three other goals, such as human rights protection, public safety, and international cooperation, but the budgets allocated for those goals are are relatively small compared to the first and second goals (Table 1).

Policies around Unskilled Migrant Workers

When people started to come to Korea in search of a job in the late 1980s, there was no official labor migration policy. They entered the country on a tourist visa or other short-term visa and found a job and became a worker. Thus, most of them soon became undocumented or unauthorized migrant workers.

As the demand for migrant labor increased and the concerns about uncontrolled migration grew, the Korean government decided to introduce the Industrial Trainee System in 1993. Yet, as the title indicates, those who came under the system were not treated as workers but as trainees, which means they were not protected by labor laws. Their wages were very low, despite the fact that they had to pay a lot of brokerage fees to come to Korea. They were exploited and their rights were abused. For these reasons, many trainees ran away from their assigned job and became undocumented workers. As their stories came out and spread in the mid-1990s, migrant advocacy organizations began to spring up to support them. After that, trainees, undocumented workers, and their advocacy organizations all together fought against the Industrial Trainee System for over ten years.

Finally in 2004, the Employment Permit System was introduced and the Industrial Trainee System was concurrently operated for three more years until it was completely abolished in 2007. The Employment System disallows brokers or private agencies to be involved in the recruitment and placement of migrant workers in order to reduce the cost of migration. It is a government-to-government system under which the Ministry of Labor of Korea and the equivalent government body in sending countries have signed an MOU to send and receive migrant workers. Most of all, it allows migrant workers to be fully protected by labor laws and grants them equal treatment as national workers.

In many aspects, the Employment Permit System is a much improved system compared to the Industrial Trainee System. However, the two systems have one thing in common: there is “no settlement” rule. To prevent unskilled migrant workers from settling down in Korea, both systems have set the principles of temporary stay, rotation, and no family reunion. However, these principles have been challenged not only by migrant workers but also by their employers who want to keep experienced workers long term.

Consequently, the Employment Permit System has been changed to extend the period of stay for migrant workers. At first, migrant workers could only stay in Korea for three years, but now they have the opportunity to extend their contract for an additional one year and ten months as long as their employer agrees to keep employing them. Also, if they meet certain requirements, they can go home for three months and then come back to Korea for another four years and ten months.  So technically, migrant workers can stay in Korea for nine years and eight months in total, which makes the principles of temporariness and rotation no longer valid. Also, migrant workers can attend the social integration program as long as they maintain their legal status. Nevertheless, there is little chance for them to obtain permanent residency or naturalization. As far as the Korean government is concerned, unskilled migrant workers are welcomed to come and work but must leave when their contract is over.


Policies around Marriage Migrants

Marriage migration of women used to be encouraged in Korea by both central and local governments, especially during the 2000s. Marriage migration was viewed as a solution to low fertility rates and low marriage rates, especially in rural areas. International marriage brokerage businesses flourished as the government deregulated their licensing system. Many local governments in rural areas provided a subsidy for local men who wanted to pursue international marriage. With this encouragement, the proportion of international marriages accounted for more than ten percent of all marriages between 2004 and 2010. In 2001, the number of marriage migrants was slightly over 30,000, but now the number has reached more than 260,000, which is over 15 percent of all long-term migrants in Korea.

Unlike migrant workers, marriage migrants were supposed to become settlers or permanent members of the Korean society. Consequently, a discourse on multicultural society and social integration emerged in the mid-2000s. However, not all marriage migrants are able to secure their immigration status. In order to renew their visa or be eligible for permanent residency or naturalization, they have to stay married or raise their children with Korean nationality or take care of their parents-in-law. Otherwise, they are not allowed to stay in Korea.

Family conflicts, domestic violence, and fraudulent marriage brokers have been constant barriers for marriage migrants to secure their stay. Yet, instead of coming up with more protective measures, the Korean government decided to reduce the number of marriage migrants by tightening marriage visa screening for potential marriage migrants. It established language criteria for migrant spouses and financial capability criteria for Korean spouses. The government justified its new measure by saying that the cost of integration would decrease if it only admitted migrants who were already fit and only allowed Koreans who were financially stable to get married to migrants.


Policies around Asylum Seekers and Refugees

Although the numbers of asylum seekers and refugees are very small in Korea, they are becoming more and more important in the policy-making process. Korea ratified the UN Refugee Convention in 1992 and began to receive refugee applications in 1994. Yet, no one had been approved as a refugee until 2000. It was 2001 when Korea recognized its first refugee, who was an Ethiopian man. In 2013, the Korean government enforced the independent Refugee Act to guarantee a minimum level of social protection for refugees in accordance with the UN Refugee Convention.

Ironically, however, there are not many people who can be protected by the Refugee Act because the government, the Ministry of Justice to be precise, has been very restrictive in granting refugee status to asylum seekers. From 1994 to June 2016, more than 18,000 asylum seekers had applied for refugee status, but less than 600 were granted refugee status (Table 2). In order to be recognized as a refugee, asylum seekers should be able to prove that they have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Other than these five grounds, stipulated in the UN Refugee Convention, no one can be granted refugee status in Korea. Therefore, those who have fled from war, like Syrians, cannot get refugee status. Instead, they can obtain humanitarian status.

The Korean government is complimenting itself for enacting the Refugee Act for the first time in Asia, protecting refugees and providing assistance for asylum seekers. Yet, it seems that the government is trying to maintain its restrictive approach towards asylum seekers. By virtue of the Refugee Act, asylum seekers can apply for refugee status at the port of entry, but in reality, those who request an application upon arrival are locked up in a repatriation waiting room in airports until the authorities decide whether to let them enter Korea and process their application or to deport them back to their country of origin. Due to this practice, many asylum seekers do not even have a chance to submit their application before they are sent back.

In addition, the government has openly expressed its concern about accepting refugees who seem hard to be integrated into Korean society. On one hand, , it has been turning down many refugee applications from Muslim asylum seekers. On the other hand, it started a refugee resettlement program in 2015 to accept Myanmar refugees from refugee camps in Thailand. The Ministry of Justice explained in a press release that it decided to accept Myanmar refugees because they look similar to Koreans and have the Buddhist religion like many Koreans, and are therefore easy to integrate into Korean society.


From Exclusion to Inclusion

The current migration and integration policies of Korea are very exclusive. In particular, they classify migrants into desirable and undesirable groups and give greater preference to the former. For example, they prefer skilled or professional migrant workers over unskilled ones, prefer marriage migrants who are mothers or care givers over those who are not, and prefer Buddhist asylum seekers over Muslim asylum seekers. As a consequence, undesirable migrants are often excluded from settling down in Korea or from integration into Korean society. Hence, the migration and integration policies of Korea not only fail to address the reality of migrants and limit the human rights of migrants, but also hinder the social integration of migrants by reinforcing prejudice and discrimination against them.

In opposition to the current government policies, migrant advocacy organizations started to get together to make their own master plan for immigration and integration policies and to propose their plan as an alternative to the government’s master plan. The ground rules of the alternative plan will be “no discrimination” and “equal treatment,” not only between migrants and nationals but also among different migrant groups. Specifically, the alternative plan will argue that although government can have admission criteria for migrants, once admitted, migrants should be given equal and fair access to stable stay, permanent residency or naturalization. Also, it will argue that migrants should be encouraged to develop themselves and make a contribution to society through more comprehensive, more inclusive, and more practical social integration programs.


This article was originally published in Korea Forum Special No.4.

The citation of the original article is : Kim, Sagang (2016) “Migration Policies of Korea: Integration and Exclusion” Korea Forum, Vol 25, Special No.4, pp.22-26.