Morality and Law
The Demographic Situation in South Korea: What Is Next?

Even among the countries of East Asia, South Korea has no equal in terms of declining fertility. It would seem that the way out of the situation is obvious: it should follow the example of many other developed countries and begin to attract immigrants. However, South Korean society is only ready to accept those foreigners who are not particularly eager to move to Korea, and at the same time is very sceptical, if not hostile, towards people from those groups that are most likely to be happy to move to the country, writes Valdai Club expert Andrei Lankov.

What has been happening to the demographic situation in South Korea over the past 10-20 years can be summed up in one word: “catastrophe”. However, as with any demographic catastrophe, it is developing rather slowly.

In 1983, South Korea’s fertility plunged below the replacement level (in other words, the total fertility rate was 2.06 that year), and has never returned to that level since. During the first decade and a half of the 21st century, the total fertility rate fluctuated around the 1.15 level for a long time, and in recent years has fallen even more sharply. In 2018, South Korea became the first country in the world in which the total birth rate was below one (0.98), and in 2019 this indicator fell to an exceptionally low level by world standards: 0.92.

It is clear that the rapid decline in births is not unique to South Korea: fertility is falling everywhere, and in almost all developed countries, the total birth rate has long been below the replacement level; the countries of East Asia are in many ways “pioneers” of this process. However, even among the countries of East Asia, South Korea has no equal in terms of declining fertility.

It is clear that the consequence of what is happening will be a catastrophic aging of the population. Paradoxically, this is also facilitated by the fact that the record decline in the birth rate in South Korea is taking place against the background of an equally record increase in average life expectancy (in 2018 it was 82.7 years). In 2019, only 14% of the country’s population were over 65, but by 2065 this proportion is expected to reach 47%, making it the highest among the developed countries.

It would seem that the way out of the situation is obvious: South Korea should follow the example of many other developed countries and begin to attract immigrants. At first, migrants will help reduce the labour shortage, and in the longer term, by joining the host society, they will become a source of additional births. At least this is how things look in theory, but in practice things are quite different: by the standards of most developed countries, there is almost no long-term immigration in South Korea.

Of course, South Korea has a large number of foreigners, whose number at the beginning of this year reached an impressive 2.52 million (5% of the country’s total population).
A significant proportion of these foreigners — about one and a half million — are labour migrants. Some of them are in Korea illegally, having entered the country on tourist visas, but most of them received their right to work in Korea in a completely legal way. It is thanks to the presence of numerous guest workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are immigrants from China and the countries of Southeast Asia, that South Korea is not yet experiencing an acute shortage of workers. As they say in Korea, migrant workers come to Korea to do the “Three D’s” — difficult, dirty, dangerous work.

However, the presence of numerous guest workers should not hide from our attention one important fact — there is practically no permanent immigration in South Korea. Guest workers come to South Korea for a certain period, which in many cases can be measured in years, and after this period they leave the country. At least, this is exactly the kind of behaviour that South Koreans expect from them; they are completely unprepared for foreigners to somehow integrate into South Korean society.

Immigrants, by and large, do not integrate. The procedure for obtaining South Korean citizenship is extremely difficult: in fact, the opportunity to obtain it is only open to highly qualified specialists (or for spouses of Korean citizens). This is due to the fact that a candidate for citizenship must meet a number of requirements that only a small proportion of foreigners living in South Korea meet. In particular, a candidate for citizenship must live in Korea for at least five years and have a legal income that is about 30% higher than the national average.
In practice, this means that a foreign employee of a South Korean corporation or, say, a professor working at a large university in a permanent position can easily obtain Korean citizenship, but for the vast majority of foreigners in Korea, the road to naturalisation is firmly closed.

Another way of naturalisation is, of course, the adoption of Korean citizenship through marriage. Over the past couple of decades, South Korean men quite often marry foreign women — the share of such “international marriages” in the total number of marriage unions in Korea has reached 8-10%. However, in most cases, such marriages are resorted to by residents of poor (by South Korean standards) villages in the south-eastern part of the country. Since a significant number of local women migrated from these villages to the cities, leaving local agricultural workers without brides, they have to marry foreign women — mainly residents of Southeast Asia and China. These Vietnamese “mail-order brides” account for the majority of foreigners who obtain South Korean citizenship.

It is significant that South Korea does not actually accept political refugees. From 1992 to the present, only 522 people have received the right to political asylum in South Korea, although more than 12,000 candidates have applied for political asylum over the years.
From all of the above, one can come to a very simple conclusion: South Koreans are “racists and xenophobes”, and therefore afraid that foreign migrants will appear in the country. This observation, however, is not true in many respects. The fact is that sociological polls show quite clearly: South Koreans, in general, are not at all opposed to permanent immigrants from other countries, and even the notion of them obtaining South Korean citizenship. The problem, however, is that South Korean society is only ready to accept those foreigners who are not particularly eager to move to Korea, and at the same time is very sceptical, if not hostile, towards people from those groups that are most likely to be happy to move to South Korea.

To verify this, one can, for example, look at the results of a study that was conducted under the auspices of the South Korean Bureau of Statistics in 2019. Based on a fairly large experience of similar studies around the world, sociologists tried to measure the level of “social distancing” that separates the Koreans from people from certain groups of migrants. The results of this study may cause some surprise to those who have little experience with life in South Korea, but they are unlikely to surprise those who have lived or worked in South Korea.

A study by the Statistical Office unequivocally shows that South Koreans feel least alienated towards North Americans. At least twice as many surveyed are ready to accept people from the United States as their own as they would mainland Chinese. In second place in terms of acceptance by South Koreans are people from Western Europe, who, according to this subjective indicator, are slightly behind the Americans. In third and fourth place, already with a rather noticeable lag behind the leaders, are the Japanese and Taiwanese, that is, representatives of peoples who, in racial, anthropological and cultural terms, seem to be the closest to the inhabitants of South Korea. In other words, a resident of modern South Korea is inclined to consider a Japanese or Taiwanese to be a somewhat greater stranger than a Frenchman or, especially, an American.

On the other hand, according to the same study, South Koreans express the highest level of subjective rejection toward the mainland Chinese and residents of Southeast Asia — that is, precisely those groups that are most likely to become suppliers of permanent migrants. Despite the seemingly cultural and racial-anthropological similarities with China, it is the Chinese who are the object of the greatest distrust and alienation for Koreans. At the same time, it is important that the level of this alienation (or, as the authors of the study say, “social distancing”) in relation to immigrants from China increased from 2008 to 2018, while in relation to all other foreigners this indicator decreased.

All this shows that the South Koreans, in principle, would like to see highly qualified immigrants from the developed world resettled for permanent residence — primarily from the United States and Europe, and at worst, from Japan and Taiwan. This approach is reflected in the existing legislation on naturalisation, which, as we have already said, makes naturalisation a fairly simple (or at least affordable) procedure for people with permanent high incomes and a high level of education.

However, it is clear that these people are not too eager to go to South Korea. They are stopped by many factors — problems with school education (education in English costs astronomical money, and Korean education closes the way to foreign universities), and the general lifestyle (not all people from America’s middle class are ready to live in South Korea’s notorious 25-40 floor “human ant hills”), and serious communication problems (contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of Koreans have little or no working knowledge of conversational English).

On the other hand, immigrants from Southeast Asian countries and China — unless they are girls from these countries who married poor South Korean peasants — are not perceived by South Korean society as desirable migrants. This reflects a certain arrogance with which South Korea, like many other Confucian societies, treats poor countries. These countries tend to be perceived there as “collective losers”, and in Confucianism in general, it is generally accepted that a loser is being punished by higher powers for some serious internal imperfection — here there is a considerable difference from the Christian attitude to these issues.

A certain role is also played by the suspicion towards any outsider that was formed in Korea over the course of approximately one and a half thousand years, when it really was the most mono-ethnic society in the world. Indeed, from the time of the Unified Silla (the end of the first millennium AD) until the end of the 19th century, there were practically no national minorities and no foreign communities in Korea. In this sense, Korea was an even more mono-ethnic country than Japan, on whose territory there was still an Ainu community, which up to a certain point played a quite significant role.

Are the South Korean population and the South Korean elite ready to admit that in the current situation the country needs to start accepting long-term migrants? Are they ready to put up with the Chinese or Vietnamese who live next to them? This question remains open. It is clear, however, that the decline in the birth rate can be slowed down at best, but by no means reversed. This means that sooner or later, some measures will have to be taken, so that the Koreans themselves do not have to worry about their future.
Cooperation in East Asia and the Experience of European Integration
Andrei Lankov
East Asia presents an entirely different landscape. If we limit ourselves to the so-called Confucian commonwealth, i.e. a hypothetical bloc formed by China, the two Koreas, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam, it would have a population of 1.75 billion people with China accounting for 81.7 percent of the East Asian union’s population, should it ever come into being.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.