As workforce shrinks, Korea struggles to embrace immigration

Thu Dec 5, 2013 4:22pm EST
 
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By Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) - For 61-year old construction worker Chae Chang-geun, an ethnic Korean from China, Seoul is a place to make money but not a place to call home.

Chae is one of the 450,000 people from the Korean diaspora born in China, who make up 40 percent of the immigrant workforce in South Korea helping to keep the country's car plants, shipyards and building companies going.

With one of the fastest ageing populations among developed nations, South Korea will become increasingly dependent on foreign labor. But the problem is that this ethnically homogenous country of 50 million can barely bring itself to welcome its own kin, let alone "foreign" labor.

"Technically, this country is our motherland," said Chae, who like other ethnic Koreans from China, thought he would be welcomed in South Korea because of a shared cultural history.

Instead, many of these immigrants say they are treated coldly, picked on by local Koreans for their accents and treated with distrust and disdain.

"We feel like we are a minority in both China and South Korea," Chae said.

South Korea has had a remarkable rise from the devastation of the Korean war six decades ago to now stand as the world's 15th biggest economy, home to globally recognized brands such as mobile-phone-to-chipmaker Samsung and automaker Hyundai.

But the population is the fastest ageing of the industrialized countries grouped in the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development. Immigration will almost certainly be needed to keep the economy growing as the ratio of senior citizens to working age people - now 1 to 5.6 - is projected to shift dramatically to 1 to 1.2 in the next 50 years.   Continued...

 
A Korean Chinese woman lies on a mattress at a makeshift camp in Seoul October 14, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji