With every passing year and a steady influx of foreigners chasing the "Korean dream," the number of people born abroad and those from multicultural families will grow and this change will invariably nudge South Korea to become a more diverse society, local observers said Tuesday.
As of March, 1.94 million foreigners were living in South Korea, an increase of more than four-fold compared to 2000, data by the Ministry of Justice showed. The greatest jump was seen among long-term residents who accounted for about 75 percent of all foreigners, up 30 percentage points from 2002. At this pace the country will soon have more than 2 million foreigners.
International marriages and employment of foreign workers have been the driving force behind the growth. Last year, 305,000 foreigners were living on a spousal visa in South Korea, a figure that only took five years to jump two-fold. South Korea first started encouraging single men in the country to marry foreign women in the 1990s to prop up the nation's agricultural industry, and as a result, the number of such unions quadrupled between 2000 and 2005.
The trend came to a screeching halt in 2011, as the justice ministry tightened regulations for South Koreans trying to marry foreigners as part of efforts to crack down on immigration fraud and domestic violence in these households.
Employment of foreigners, however, has risen consistently in recent years. There were 938,000 foreign workers in South Korea as of May 2015, up 20 percent from 2012, which is the year when the data was first collected.
South Korean companies started hiring immigrants in the 1980s to secure a steady supply of workers in emerging industries. The government became involved in 1993, launching a program training immigrants for South Korean firms, and nearly 160,000 people graduated from this scheme by 2002.
Two years later, South Korea announced stricter regulations for employers, requiring them to ensure equal rights for local and foreign employees alike.
Due to South Korea's geographic proximity to China, ethnic Koreans from the world's most populous country make up 1 in 3 foreigners here, or 630,000 people. More Chinese people of Korean descent have settled in South Korea since the peninsular country instituted a legal basis for their employment here in 1999.
It became even easier for them to enter South Korea in 2007 when Seoul created a Working Visit (H-2) visa for ethic Koreans, including those who do not have family ties in South Korea.
The worldwide boom of Korean pop culture, known here as "Hallyu," has also brought in an increasing number of foreign students studying in South Korea. Between 2011 and March this year, they increased 20 percent to 106,138, according to the justice ministry.
A string of foreigners have become household names in a variety of fields in South Korea. In the 90s, naturalized South Korean lawyer Robert Holley and Ida Daussy from France became popular TV personalities. Lee Charm, a German-born entrepreneur, became the highest ranking foreign official in South Korea by heading of Korea Tourism Organization in 2009.
Jasmine Lee from the Philippines became the first foreign-born lawmaker in South Korea after securing a seat as a proportional representative for the ruling Saenuri Party in 2012.
As long-term residents grow, households consisting of one or more of them have naturally increased as well. About 1.3 percent, or 278,036, of all households in South Korea were "multicultural" in 2015, according to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.
Considering the average South Korean household consists of 3.16 people, that means some 880,000 people were part of a multicultural family last year.
The same data also showed that the number of multicultural family members jumped more than three-fold between 2006 and 2015. As South Korean families diversify, the government has been forced to shift its multicultural policy from assisting the families' adjustment to helping them find jobs and get educated.
Challenges still remain for foreigners living in South Korea. Government policy has centered on foreign spouses even though the profile of a foreigner in the country has become much more diverse.
Government programs sometimes overlap from ministry to ministry.
Some South Koreans are still reluctant to accept foreigners as part of their community, as a World Values Survey ranked South Korea at 51st out of 59 countries in terms of racial awareness. Some 44 percent of South Koreans felt negative toward foreign workers and immigrants in the same survey, which was the fourth highest ratio among all countries studied.
Researcher Oh Jung-eun at the International Organization of Migration Research & Training Center stressed that South Koreans must start learning to view foreigners as equals to them rather than objects for sympathy.
"To realize true social integration, South Korea should set policies that allow immigrants to do their part in society and provide them with proper education," she said. (Yonhap)