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Subject  [HERALD INTERVIEW] Immigration chief envisions more diverse, prosperous Korea
Name  HiKorea
Image   [HERALD INTERVIEW] Immigration chief envisions more diverse, prosperous Korea image

Immigration chief envisions more diverse, prosperous Korea

Choo Kyu-ho, the commissioner of the Korean Immigration Office
[Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald]

The nation's top immigration official says that opening the door more to immigrants is vital because they can bring significant social and economic benefits to Korea, which is facing demographic challenges such as a low birth rate and an aging population.

'If handled properly, the active acceptance of foreign immigrants is important, especially for our country,' said Choo Kyu-ho, the commissioner of the Korea Immigration Service, in an interview with The Korea Herald yesterday.

'A nation can embrace foreigners more actively and with more confidence if we are assured of their will to respect local law and order.'

The 56-year-old commissioner, a former career diplomat who served in Japan, Italy and the United States, emphasized the KIS motto of 'policy-guided opening,' which means that order should be ensured as the nation deals with an influx of immigrants.

Korea's non-working population is expected to outnumber the labor force sometime around 2020, experts say.

According to the National Statistics Office, the percentage of senior citizens, which stood at 9.9 percent in 2007, is estimated to rise to 20.8 percent in 2026. Korea's total fertility rate was at 1.26 in 2007, one of the lowest among the 30 OECD countries.

The commissioner stressed that there must be a good system established to assess the demand for foreign workers in each industrial sector and to balance the composition of foreigners.

'It is difficult to predict the number of foreign workers needed in each sector due, in part, to our lack of expertise,' he said. 'Currently, highly skilled foreign residents number just around 40,000, a tiny fraction of the 1.15 million foreigners here.'

Some people have condemned the seemingly discriminatory nature of the immigration policies, which tend to favor those who are highly educated, skilled and wealthy.

Workers who have developed their job skills here, who make 29 million won ($25,119) per year - slightly more than the per capita gross domestic product - and who have a reasonable level of Korean language proficiency can be granted

permanent residency. Most migrant laborers are not allowed to permanently reside here and bring in their families. As of May 31, 507,858 unskilled migrant workers, including 58,264 illegal foreign workers, were living in Korea.

'The salary for migrant workers may be high by their countries' standards, but it's relatively low here in Korea,' the commissioner said. 'So, the possibility of them falling into the underprivileged class is high, which could become even higher if they come here with their families.

'As our fathers did in the 1960s, it is also crucial for them to earn money and job skills here, and go back to their countries to contribute to their national development.'

The KIS's crackdown on illegal migrant workers has been denounced by some who allege that the rights of undocumented workers have been seriously undermined in the process.

An undocumented migrant worker can file a petition or complaint with the Labor Ministry to resolve his or her disputes with Korean employers regarding unpaid wages and severance benefits. But most such workers fear that the immigration law requiring public servants to report illegal workers could be enforced.

'Without the government's intending this at all, the illegal status itself puts them in circumstances where the protection of their rights cannot be guaranteed,' he added. 'In principle, we try to help them resolve the issues they complained about before deporting them,' Choo said.

Last year, roughly 6.2 billion won was offered to illegal foreign workers in about 5,500 cases involving unpaid wages.

'In the past, the Labor Ministry reported the illegal workers to us after having resolved their disputes with management,' the commissioner said. 'Whatever the order is, we will strive to address the workers' complaints within the confines of the law.'

Some have pointed out that most of the policies regarding foreigners have focused on unilaterally assimilating them.

'Korea's policies may appear to be seeking a kind of assimilation. But we have the goal of encouraging them to capitalize on and preserving their own cultures here in various ways,' the commissioner said.

'As Koreans receive compulsory elementary school education, requiring these workers from abroad to get a certain level of education is necessary, and it's the government's obligation to help them develop their capabilities to live here as Korean citizens.'

He said that Koreans also must do their best to cultivate an environment in which there is the common understanding that foreigners contribute to the nation's development and add cultural diversity.

As the number of foreign spouses increases, the education of their children has become an important issue.

There are about 110,000 foreign spouses here, mostly from Southeast Asian countries. International unions accounted for about 11.1 percent of marriages last year. The number of schoolchildren from multiracial families was 18,769 as of April 30, according to the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology.

'As most tend to be at the bottom of the social pecking order, the possibility that will they fall into the isolated class is high. So, we view the education of children as very important,' Choo said.

'We are seeking to encourage these people from abroad to be a bridge between Korea and their native countries by helping to preserve their cultural identities. This can be a way to expand our psychological territory abroad.'

The wellbeing of the undocumented workers' children is also a major concern of human rights activists.

As of June 30, among the 44,583 foreign children here aged 16 or younger, 5,595 were listed as illegal. Approximately 1,500 children of illegal immigrants attend schools, including unauthorized alternative ones, according to children's rights groups.

Korea joined the U.N. convention in December 1991, which guarantees children's access to educational and medical services. 'In reality, offering an open-ended protection program for undocumented children is difficult,' Choo said. 'We can consider giving them a reasonable period of time to prepare for their deportation if they are caught. There is no country which allows an unlimited educational right to such people.'

Regarding the criticism that the naturalization process for foreign wives is too slow, the commissioner said that relaxing the rules to grant permanent residency rights to them could resolve the matter. The new social integration system, which begins next year, will also help reduce their waiting time for citizenship, which has typically been four to five years from the time that they married a Korean.

'Due to the surge in the number of citizenship applicants and the insufficient number of workers to process their files, the process has been slow,' he said. 'But they can avoid many problems here once they have permanent residency status, which is almost the same as citizenship, except for the right to vote.'

Critics have stressed that the visa guidelines for overseas Koreans from certain countries are unfairly restrictive. For example, people from China and Russia are treated as foreigners, while those from the United States are treated as compatriots.

'As they have a foreign nationality, some degree of such restrictions, including the one pertaining to manual laborers, has been inevitable,' he explained. 'We also cannot help considering our domestic labor market, as with the unemployment rate among young adults.'

'In relative terms, the number of overseas Koreans seeking such jobs here from Russia and China is higher. For them, we introduced a system last year which allows them to live here for three to five years, which we believe was a bold step.'

The slow process of granting refugee status has also been a challenge to the KIS.
Out of the 2,031 refugee applications which the government has received since 1994, it has examined only 751 as of August. Of these, 78 people were granted refugee status. Another 55 were allowed to stay in Korea for humanitarian reasons.

'We admit the lack of professionalism in this matter, as we have yet to establish a standard assessment process for asylum seekers, and we have no separate agency for the refugees,' Choo said.

The KIS has already secured a swath of land in Gyeonggi Province for refugee facilities. It plans to offer basic education to them so that they can assimilate, and to offer job training and language education. Construction is set to begin next year and will take about three years.

By Song Sang-ho (



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