Will South Korea Follow the German Experience? Democracy, the Migratory Process, and the Prospects for Permanent Immigration in Korea

By Lim, Timothy C. | Korean Studies, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Will South Korea Follow the German Experience? Democracy, the Migratory Process, and the Prospects for Permanent Immigration in Korea


Lim, Timothy C., Korean Studies


Introduction

Human migration is a global phenomenon. It affects all parts of the world, often in profound ways. This has certainly been true from a historical perspective, but it is no less true today. Indeed, over the past sixty years, the movement of people across borders has been growing in volume, scope, and intensity; in addition, there is little evidence to indicate that this trend will abate anytime soon. Even countries once thought to be immune to migration--especially to in-migration--have proven to be unexceptional. South Korea is a case in point. Long portrayed as an ethnically pure and homogenous nation-state--the quintessential "historical nation"--the very thought of large-scale migration into the country was anathema to the Korean psyche. Beginning in the late 1980s, however, the barriers to large-scale migration began to break down. The reason is easy enough to discern: after decades of rapid and sustained industrialization, combined with a continuous increase in economic wealth, severe labor shortages started to appear in certain segments of the Korean economy. There is nothing surprising about this development. Almost every industrialized country has gone through the same general process, often referred to as the migration transition. Philip Martin, Andrew Mason, and Toshikazu Nagayama describe the migration transition--including the process leading up to this transition--in the following manner:

   Most countries go through several fundamental transitions as they
   'develop.' The industrial transition is the movement of the
   majority of the labor force and economic output from agricultural
   to industrial jobs, and then to service jobs. The demographic
   transition involves declines in fertility and mortality, slowing
   population growth rates, populations aging, and often a changed
   role for women, such as reduced childbearing and greater
   participation in the formal labor market. The migration transition
   refers to the movement of a country from being a net labor exporter
   to being a net labor importer. At [sic] low levels of development
   proceeds, the demand for labor increases, and the supply grows more
   slowly-a consequence of the demographic transition. A key turning
   point occurs when labor shortages appear in key sectors of the
   economy, and countries begin to import, as well as export, labor.
   (1)

The migration transition, then, can be seen as the result of a long series of interconnected changes within an economy and society. It can also be considered a "natural" and largely predictable product of economic transformation. And, while the early stage of the transition (i.e., labor emigration) may seem largely voluntary, the latter stage of in-migration is often involuntary and almost always presents a major and often unwanted challenge to societies. After all, a large number of countries view in-migration as a threat to social cohesion and, more abstractly, to their sense of national, ethnic, or "racial" identity. And, while some traditional "countries of immigration" have maintained relatively open borders throughout their history, tolerance for international migrants has generally depended on a basic cultural, ethnic, or "racial" affinity: the more different international migrants were perceived to be, the less welcome they were. (Of course, differences or "otherness," as many scholars argue, are generally socially constructed as a way to marginalize or control immigrants, or, more broadly, to reinforce existing relations of power in society.) Even before the rise of "global terrorism," moreover, non-native migrants have been viewed with deep suspicion, as a potential fifth column--as a threat to national security. Accordingly, in-migration has generally been resisted, even as it inexorably unfolds in one society after another.

The seemingly inexorable nature of the migration transition suggests that few, if any, countries or societies are immune to its "homogenizing" effects. …

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