Back To Top

[What the 2020s will hold for Korea] More immigrants, multinational families

A new decade has dawned. Unprecedented challenges await Korea from an aging and shrinking population to accelerated warming of the peninsula. 

The Korea Herald has prepared a four-part series looking into some of the changes and challenges facing the nation in the 2020s. -- Ed.

As South Korea enters a new decade with a looming demographic crisis, immigrants make up only 4 percent of the country’s total population of 51.7 million.

The proportion looks set to rise in the 2020s, but the country seems divided over the speed and extent of the increase, despite many experts calling for a drastic immigration policy change in the face of an expected population decline.

“The debate surrounding immigrants has not moved forward for the past decade and the policies on foreigners are still scattered among different ministries,” said Chung Ki-seon, director of the IOM Migration Research and Training Center, an institution affiliated with the International Organization of Migration based in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province. 


Korea started to systematically accept foreigners through an industrial trainee program in 1993 to fill vacancies in the manufacturing sector for positions shunned by locals. As of October, the number of immigrants stood at 2.48 million. 

In the past decade, the foreign population here has become more diversified. More foreigners have moved to Korea for business and education opportunities or as a result of marriage. The country also saw a rise in the number of asylum seekers applying for refugee status here.

Among Korea’s foreign population, the number of migrant workers is about 280,000 and those married to Koreans number about 165,000. There are about 184,000 foreign students. Some 995 people are recognized refugees, and 2,151 are here on humanitarian stay visas, according to government data as of October. 

Despite the growing number of foreigners, the country’s immigration policy has largely remained unchanged, with a focus on controlling the border.

Policies on foreign residents in Korea have been devised and implemented mainly by three ministries: the Justice Ministry is in charge of visa schemes; the Gender Ministry focuses on assimilating marriage migrants into Korean society; and the Labor Ministry manages migrant workers entering Korea under the Employment Permit System. 

The Justice Ministry has tightened its immigration policy in recent years, to keep out those viewed as “fake refugees” only seeking economic opportunities here, amid a soaring number of refugee applications and growing anti-immigration sentiment.

Last year, more than 480 Yemenis arrived on the southern island of Jeju. Their sudden arrival in a country where people have had little exposure to asylum seekers or Muslims sparked a backlash. 

Against the backdrop of low birthrates, taking in more foreigners appears inevitable if the Korean economy is to grow. The inflow of foreigners also seems unstoppable, given the unfair distribution of wealth and opportunities as well as ongoing armed conflicts around the world.

The number of multicultural families is expected to soar from the current 743,400 in 2020 to 1.21 million in 2013 and 2.16 million in 2050, according to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

“Given the low birthrate, we need to utilize the influx of foreigners as part of our population policy,” Chung of the IOM Migration Research and Training Center said. “By opening the door wider, the government should select those who can stay here in the long term to contribute to our society.”

To that end, it is necessary to lay out a cross-sectoral immigration policy addressing all foreigners -- from students to businesspeople to laborers -- and to have a control tower in charge of implementing the policy, she added.

The government announced in September that it would integrate all laws that affect foreigners into one, as part of a comprehensive immigration system, and would grant long-term visas to skilled, educated foreigners living in cities with declining populations.

By Ock Hyun-ju (