South Korea’s successful response to the coronavirus pandemic has elevated its global profile and created openings for its reserve of soft power to grow. But as the pandemic continues, it is worth noting that looking only at South Korea’s successes may provide a distorted view of the potential soft power gains the country could make.
Widening the aperture to include South Korea’s shortcomings might provide a fuller, more clarifying picture of the country’s global image and soft power as a whole. South Korea’s marginalization of foreigners and migrants in its pandemic response provides a cautionary tale about the status of the country’s multiculturalism strategy, an important part of Seoul’s state-driven quest for economic dynamism, global standing, and soft power.
Why Did South Korea Embrace Multiculturalism?
Traditionally, South Korea has identified as an ethnically homogenous country, as Korea scholars like Gi-Wook Shin and Darcie Draudt have extensively chronicled. Despite this legacy of homogeneity, demographic trends have pushed South Korean policymakers to encourage inbound migration, leaving politicians and citizens alike to grapple with the prospect of their country becoming a more multiethnic state.
Since the early to mid-1980s, South Korea’s fertility rate has remained below 2.1 children per woman—the rate considered necessary to replace the population over a generation without migration. The country’s figure stood at just 0.98 in 2018, according to the World Bank (see figure 1). Meanwhile, average life expectancy has risen from sixty-six years old to eighty-two years old over that same period, even as South Korea’s population growth has slowed precipitously. These changes are leading to labor shortages in important economic sectors and changes in marriage trends, creating a demand for migrant labor and foreign spouses.
Since the early 2000s, the government has embraced more liberal immigration policies and actively promoted multiculturalism. Seoul’s goal is not only to persuade the country’s predominantly Korean population to accept this shift but also to make South Korea a more appealing draw for labor migrants, foreign spouses, and international students.
In practice, this shift has been slow going and has faced some backlash—both mutually reinforcing trends. In the last twenty years, the percentage of foreign residents in South Korea has gone from 0.33 percent in 2000 to 3.44 percent in 2019 (see figure 2). Cognizant of societal sensitivities to immigration, South Korean policy planners have sought to ease the resistant country into new immigration policies, but such domestic sensitivities also hinder implementation of more comprehensive immigration policies. For example, importation of migrant labor has been a bedrock of South Korea’s response to its demographic challenges, but the country’s labor visa system ensures that most migrant laborers remain temporary residents. As Draudt notes, the country’s Employment Permit System (EPS) stipulates that migrant laborers can obtain renewable one-year visas “until just shy of the five years needed to apply for long-term residency.”
How the Pandemic Has Tested South Korean Multiculturalism
The foreign-borne, highly contagious, and potentially lethal coronavirus pandemic raises hard questions for South Korean policymakers about how to allocate precious resources and how to manage exposure risks. However unintentionally, South Korea has marginalized foreigners and migrants in its pandemic response. This response is arguably symptomatic of the country’s difficult relationship with its growing foreign and migrant communities and exposes the challenges multiculturalism continues to face.
First, there continue to be tensions between the state’s perceived responsibilities toward foreign residents and those residents’ expectations of equitable treatment under the law. Like in many countries, national and local South Korean officials offered varying levels of economic relief to citizens and residents but not foreigners. In places with lots of foreign residents like Seoul and Gyeonggi, for instance, government officials placed stricter eligibility conditions on non-Koreans or even excluded them from receiving economic aid altogether. Following complaints filed by civic and human rights groups, the independent National Human Rights Commission of Korea concluded that the exclusions were discriminatory and made a nonbinding recommendation that all foreign residents should be eligible to receive pandemic-related assistance. Seoul’s municipal government reversed course and complied with the recommendation, but Gyeonggi’s provincial government chose not to, citing logistical and legal challenges.
Foreign residents living in South Korea are economically vulnerable. The majority of them work in low-paying nonprofessional jobs or perform manual labor and therefore have been hit hard by the pandemic. These jobs are essential to South Korea’s economy, especially as increasing incomes and educational levels in the country have led to a domestic shortage of low-skilled workers. But aside from the economic importance of inclusion, this example of exclusionary policymaking shows a disconnect between South Korea’s inclination to marginalize non-Koreans and its pro-multiculturalism policy.
Second, against prevailing public health recommendations, South Korea has targeted foreigners in its disease mitigation strategies, perhaps reinforcing discrimination that is already on the rise. As individuals infected with the coronavirus were increasingly seen as coming from abroad, South Korea began to implement stringent deportation regulations for foreign nationals caught violating quarantine measures. The government also revised national law so that foreigners would be required to pay for the cost of treating any coronavirus-related illnesses if they knowingly traveled to South Korea while infected.
South Korean policymakers are understandably overwhelmed with trying to manage new viral outbreaks, and these exclusionary measures were likely narrowly aimed at curbing imported cases and disincentivizing uncooperative behavior. But such discriminatory policies based on foreign or migrant status have been widely condemned as bad public health policies that could further the global spread of the disease or discourage marginalized groups from seeking treatment.
The measures also feed into a xenophobic narrative that the government should be actively combating. Early on in the pandemic, anti-Chinese racism reportedly flared up, as delivery services refused to travel to areas with Chinese migrants and as some shops and restaurants shunned Chinese people because of racist views that the coronavirus is a “Chinese virus.” This trend indicates a larger backlash against multiculturalism and enduring racism in the country. According to a 2019 survey, 68.4 percent of migrants interviewed agreed that racism is a problem in South Korea.
To be fair, many countries are struggling to balance how they treat migrant and immigrant communities in their national pandemic responses. The United States, for example, also excluded tax-paying nonpermanent residents from stimulus relief, and the country has seen a significant rise in anti-Asian racism. There is a soft power lesson here, too, for South Korea. The United States’ soft power appeal has been seriously undermined by President Donald Trump’s America First foreign policy agenda and related racist immigration policies and rhetoric. Clearly, perceptions about multiculturalism matter.
The disruptive coronavirus pandemic has put the world in an uneasy holding pattern, but South Korea’s demographic challenges are unlikely to slow down. The country has a clear, persistent need for an influx of labor. A recent government report projected that South Korea’s population could begin contracting in 2030 and that, by 2067, the country’s working-age population could decrease from 73.2 percent to 45.4 percent of the population. Such seismic shifts will necessitate greater levels of inbound immigration (perhaps millions of workers) to bolster the country’s workforce. So far, the country’s number of inbound immigrants per year has climbed from 137,202 in 2000 to 251,466 in 2018 (see figure 3).
South Korea is experiencing a dramatic taste of this future during the pandemic. South Korean farms are facing an acute labor shortage because the seasonal foreign migrant laborers they depend on are unable to enter the country under pandemic-related restrictions. The government twice provided fifty-day visa extensions for more than l8,000 EPS migrant laborers in the country to cope with these labor shortages in April and July 2020.
While no one could have foreseen the pandemic, it is helping to clarify the limits of South Korea’s reliance on an EPS labor system designed around temporary stays—a system that raises hard questions about who counts in South Korea’s supposedly multicultural society.
South Korea’s global profile is on the rise because of its response to the coronavirus pandemic. But this potential boost for the country’s international standing and soft power is limited by the incongruences between its pro-multicultural soft power brand and the real immigration challenges the country is grappling with, especially amid the pandemic. The image of competence and potential for soft power generated by South Korea’s effective public health response to the pandemic could be squandered if the country continues to struggle with an existential demographic crisis and domestic resistance to the multiculturalism needed to right the ship.
Esther S. Im is a program officer at the National Committee on North Korea. Previously, she was a junior Fulbright researcher in South Korea (2015–2016) and a researcher at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, where she covered sanctions, nonproliferation, and disarmament issues during South Korea’s term on the Security Council (2013–2015). The views expressed are solely those of the author and not those of any of these entities.