10

Controlling foreign migrant workers in Korea

Lee Jae-Hyup


Introduction

Korea faces a problem seemingly unique in its history. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, before the 1997 financial crisis, Korea's economy enjoyed rapid growth. The resulting prosperity has, in turn, created new challenges in the form of severe manual labor shortages. Having grown accustomed to prosperity, Korean workers have demanded and received gradual reductions in their working hours. Furthermore, Korea's well-educated young people balk at performing what are referred to as "3D" jobs - dangerous, dirty, and difficult. Many industries have addressed the problem by looking abroad for the required manual labor. While the use of unskilled labor has never been officially allowed by immigration authorities, hundreds of thousands of unskilled laborers have nonetheless entered the country to fill the demand.

The escalating number of foreign migrant workers has sparked fierce debates within Korea as to whether their presence should be condoned or not, and what their legal status should be. Particularly prominent in the debate are the voices of many human rights advocates, highlighting the commonplace denials of the fundamental human rights of these migrants. As workers demand better treatment and form alliances with human rights activists, it is becoming clear that these debates are not only about a small foreign-born segment of Korean society. They are about Korean society in general, and whether or not it will develop a level of cultural tolerance. Looking at the problem from this angle provides an alternative perspective on the mainstream Korean culture, its ambiguities and contradictions.

Since the early 1990s, Korea has undertaken a national and international campaign of "internationalization," proclaiming loudly "Korea's role in the world community," with the aim of counteracting its xenophobic and isolationist image and fostering an international philosophy more on a par with its global economic power. 1 Korea has transformed from a labor-exporting country to a labor-importing country, and emerged as a leading nation among rapidly industrializing countries. The globalization

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