Last year only 302 Koreans registered as emigrants, marking the lowest number since the government began compiling emigration data in 1962 when 386 people left here to live abroad.
The number of Korean emigrants increased steeply to a peak of 46,533 in 1976. Until the early 2000s, more than 10,000 Koreans emigrated annually, according to data from the Foreign Ministry. But the figure fell below the 10,000 mark in 2003 and shrank to less than 1,000 in 2010.
The continuous decline in the number of emigrants was attributed mainly to the country’s economic growth and improvement of living conditions. It may be understood in the same context that about 4,000 Korean compatriots overseas have returned home annually in recent years for permanent resettlement.
In demographic terms, this phenomenon cannot be a cause of concern for the country alarmed at the prospect of population shrinkage that would lead to eroding its growth potential.
With the fertility rate stuck at the current level of 1.24 children per woman, Korea’s estimated population will be 170,000 short of the optimal population needed to guarantee sustainable growth in 2045. The shortage will expand to 1.26 million in 2050, 3.51 million in 2060 and 7.8 million in 2080, according to forecasts by the national statistics office.
Coupled with a decrease in the number of Korean students studying abroad, however, the reduction of emigration to negligible figures may not be overlooked as simply reflecting the improved living conditions here.
According to data from the Education Ministry, 227,126 Korean students attended foreign universities and other institutes of higher learning last year, down from 262,465 in 2011. The decline may be related to the growing perception that foreign diplomas are not appreciated as much as before in the country.
It still does not seem exaggerated to be concerned that the downward trends in emigration and overseas study may suggest Koreans are losing their challenging spirit and tenacity that have enabled the nation to ascend to a major economic powerhouse from the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean War. This active character should not be weakened, if Korea is to make another economic leap forward.
What is also required of Koreans to sustain demographic vitality and economic prosperity is to improve their perception and attitude toward an increasing number of immigrant workers and other foreign residents.
The number of foreign nationals here more than doubled over a decade to 1.45 million at the end of 2012. A report drawn up by a local institute last year proposed increasing the number to 3 million by 2030. If not, the paper warned, the nation would begin to suffer from a severe workforce shortage, which would further decelerate its economic growth.
In 2012, Korea became the world’s seventh country with a population of more than 50 million to have its per capita income exceed $20,000. A growing number of expatriates here have contributed to the nation achieving these landmark figures. It needs to be recognized that they are no longer mere guests to the country but should be allowed to join native Koreans in building a harmonious and prosperous society.
Discussing what had reduced the number of Korean emigrants, a government official was quoted as saying it was “not easy to find a better place than Seoul in terms of living conditions.” Korea may come to have a brighter future, if more foreigners agree to his view and choose to live here.
It should be noted that Japan is working on an ambitious plan to accept at least 200,000 immigrants annually to cope with the gloomy forecast that its population would shrink to a third of the current 127 million by 2110, unless drastic efforts are made.