Migrant Workers and Foreign Brides in ‘Multicultural Korea’

Perspectives Internationales 11/11/2014 0
Migrant Workers and Foreign Brides in ‘Multicultural Korea’

Narrative #1

“It was those times when I was working at a factory that manufactured notebooks. When Korean workers went out for a get-together dinner, they would force me to drink alcohol. They also forced me to sing and dance. I somehow managed to drink a bit, but I really couldn’t bring myself to sing and dance. So I had to tell them I can’t, then one of my bosses, who was quite drunk at the time, turned the table upside down and shouted at me: ‘You brat, you have the nerve to say no. Are you ignoring me? If you don’t want to do it, go back to your country! You sing when I order you to sing, it’s the law in here, in this country.’ He even grabbed me by the nape and shook me. That is how the law in Korea goes…Virtually, there are no channels for us, we illegal aliens, to negotiate or communicate with the Korean government. I am left with two choices: to do as my boss orders me to do or to go back to my home country. They would say, ‘just kick them out, those bastards, just kick them out.’” (from Namasŭst’e by Pak Pŏmsin, 2005)

Narrative #2

“Following the immigrant wife Lee’s entry to the Assembly, we can well predict the rise of unregistered foreigners and foreign women marrying in return for money. We’ll see the truth of multiculturalism that exploits Koreans.” (ABS/CBN News, 17 April 2012)

Lee Jasmine, a naturalized South Korean citizen originally from the Philippines, became a proportional representative in South Korea’s National Assembly in 2012. She made history as the first non-ethnic Korean female lawmaker. The ruling party Saenuri supported her candidacy based on her status as a foreign bride and her popularity stemmed from her appearance in Korean films, as the promotion of multiculturalism was one of the party’s platforms. Nonetheless, Lee faced numerous racist attacks, mostly through media and social networking services. In a country where the notion of mono-ethnic national identity is deeply entrenched in the idea of citizenship, her new status faced criticism and xenophobic responses from Korean people.

The two narratives introduced above unfold some of the key problems with multiculturalism and multicultural policies in Korea. First, both stories show how migrant workers and foreign brides are experiencing difficulty adjusting to Korean society due to racial discrimination. Second, both stories illustrate the inadequate legal implementations that do not sufficiently ensure human rights—social, political, economic, and cultural rights—of non-ethnic Koreans in Korea. Finally, both stories demonstrate that the state’s multicultural policies are implemented mainly for multicultural families while failing to address the presence of the large number of migrant workers. While these issues are intricately related to each other, I would like to focus on the current problem of multicultural policies that do not accommodate migrant workers and foreign brides. Despite the growing presence of grassroots movements in Korea addressing the human rights issues facing this socio-economic group, state policies fail to present a long-term vision and effective means not only to ensure the migrants’ well-being but also to raise the level of public consciousness of the urgent need to recognize ethnic and cultural differences within domestic borders.

A Brief History of the Transnational Flow of People into Korea

Contemporary Korea is experiencing a new phase of contact with ‘Asia’ due to increasing numbers of tourists, migrant workers, and foreign brides. Unlike tourists, the latters’ purpose upon arrival is to obtain long-term employment or permanent residency. Like in Japan and Taiwan, where the rate of intra-regional migration has increased significantly in the last twenty years, Korea has also been experiencing a high number of intra-regional migrations since the early 1990s. As scholars point out, there are three main factors that have encouraged transnational migration in East Asia—namely, labor shortage, the low fertility rate, and an aging population (Parreñas and Kim 2011, 1556). The Korean government’s acceleration of neoliberalization in the last fifteen years is partially responsible for these factors except the aging population. There has been a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and a mass replacement of regular workers with temporary employees and day labourers (Suh, Park, and Kim 2012, 842).[1] As a consequence, many people in cities remain unmarried for economic reasons, thus lowering the fertility rate. Additionally there was a significant decrease of permanent positions in the job market in both white-collar and blue-collar sectors. The deregulation of labor relations, private education, and housing markets resulted in the creation of the “working poor,” a large group of people whose income can never be sufficient for obtaining house ownership and higher education for their children (Lim and Jang 2007). As Harvey argues, neoliberalism “has proven a huge and unqualified success” for creating an enormous gap between the haves and have-nots (2009, 67), and it has done very little for those who have been proletarized during the process. This explains why some of the popular literature and cinema that deal with migrant workers juxtapose the issue of multiculturalism with the proletarization of South Korean citizens. In short, the multiple problems on multiculturalism such as the regulation of the labour market, social discrimination against migrant workers and foreign brides, and inconsistent policies over the acquirement of citizenship, is intersected with the neoliberalizing process in South Korea.

Most migrant workers are from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia. These migrants come to Korea to take up employment in “3D”—dirty, dangerous, and difficult— jobs, and in small and medium enterprises (SME), whereas foreign brides arrive in Korea mainly from China, Vietnam, and the Philippines (Kim and Oh 2011, 1571–4). The shortage of young women able to marry has been a serious social problem since the 1990s roughly for two reasons: first because the rate of migration of young women in rural areas to cities has been increasing (Kim and Oh, 1564) and second, because many women remain unmarried until 30s and 40s (Yang 2013, 303).

As of 2013, there were over 1.5 million foreigners living in South Korea—mostly migrant workers and foreign brides (Statistics Korea). This demographic change is unprecedented in modern Korean history since the end of the colonial period[2]; and the number exceeds the case of Japan, where minorities and immigrants make up only 1 per cent of the whole population (Ishiwata 2011, 1605).

A large portion of migrant workers and foreign brides are ethnic Koreans from the PRC. It has been reported that about half a million ethnic Koreans from the PRC are currently living in Korea (Kang 2012, 109). Inasmuch as the influx of migrant workers has increased significantly, especially since Korea normalized its diplomatic relationship with the PRC in 1992, international marriages have increased significantly over the last two decades as well. Over the last ten years, the rate of international marriages stayed around 10 percent. Although the rate of international marriages reached about 8 percent of all marriages in Korea in 2013, the lowest over the last ten years, it had stayed well above 10 percent every year since 2005 (Statistics Korea). In popular media, women with Southeast Asian backgrounds are pictured as foreign brides living in rural areas; however, in reality a large portion of women in international marriages are from the PRC and almost 90 percent of foreigners—migrant workers and foreign brides—are concentrated in major cities (Yang 2013, 301).

Problems with Labor Law and Multicultural Policy

On the settlement issue in the case of migrant workers and foreign brides, the Korean government shows an ambiguous, if not confusing, position. The state has publicized the “oegugin chŏngch’aek (policies on foreigners)” rather than “immigration policy (imin chŏngch’aek),” which aims to oversee multiple issues such as labor/visa relations, training of migrant workers, education for foreign brides and children, and providing social work services to multicultural families, to name a few.

There are key problems with this policy and its implementation. First, the term “foreigners” is not clear at all, since it also includes those who already possess Korean citizenship. It is exclusive, as it recognizes future citizens and new citizens as permanent outsiders. Second, the homogeneous category, “foreigners,” in fact seems to refer implicitly to foreign brides, since the central and the local governments’ support for “foreigners” is concentrated on these women and their bi-ethnic children. Third, the state’s delegation of the execution of these policies is inconsistent, which at times creates conflicts among different government institutions. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, for example, was responsible for carrying out policies around multicultural families until 2007, when the responsibility was transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Considering that most multicultural families are concentrated in urban areas—75 percent of the whole multicultural family population in Korea as of 2006 (Kim 2006, 58)—the state’s handover to the Ministry of Agriculture seems unreasonable, as it could seriously endanger the acculturation of multicultural families and bi-ethnic children living in cities.

Unlike foreign brides, who are the main object of assimilation, migrant workers have been thoroughly excluded from the state’s immigration policy. Just like the protagonist in Namasŭt’e who can apply for citizenship, some migrant workers are eligible to apply for immigration status according to the labor law. However, there are three constraints that discourage them to pursue the obtainment of this status. First, migrant workers receive working visas with a three-year maximum, yet they have to present a permanent Korean address where they have proof of living for five years prior to their application (Chǒn 2009, 297). Second, migrant workers cannot change their workplaces easily since they must sign their contracts with their employers prior to entering Korea. If they alter the contract, they will face deportation. As a result, many workers face unfair treatment by their employers: delayed salary payment, sexual harassment, and physical/verbal abuse are not scarce in workplaces. Third, the Korean government provides an uneven employment system that separates non-ethnic Koreans from ethnic Koreans. Its establishment in 2009 of a visa category for ethnic Koreans from the PRC and the former USSR region, called the H-2 visa, clearly favours ethnic Koreans over non-ethnic Koreans: this visa and its employment conditions are very fluid. In fact, the government cannot even identify the whereabouts of people with H-2 visas, since these workers can change their workplaces much more freely than those non-ethnic Koreans.

A Long Way Ahead

At the end of Namasŭt’e, the protagonist burns himself as a protest against the state and Korean employers’ unfair treatment of migrant workers. This ending may appear extreme, but in the book’s preface, Pak Pŏmsin writes about the horror he experienced when watching the news about the suicide of a Sri Lankan migrant worker on television in November of 2003. He was one of four migrant workers who killed themselves in that month, and news of the suicides and suicide attempts of migrant workers continue to appear to this date. Also, unhappy stories of foreign brides are have become familiar to Korean people through the media: many women kill themselves or go back to their countries due to the physical and verbal abuse of their husbands and in-laws, and the lack of support for their children. This could be avoided if the state set up channels to communicate with them and provided government-sponsored social assistance.

One noticeable point of progress is the establishment of grassroots organizations in Korea that have been volunteering to aid migrant workers and foreign brides. Ansan, an industrial city near Seoul, is a good example where local communities try to accommodate “foreigners” by providing education programs and public cultural events, among other measures. Yet, the successive appearance of new “foreigners districts” such as a suburb of Seoul, Ansan, and some districts in Seoul such as Mullae-dong, Itaewon, and Karibong-dong, poses the question of whether this rise of residential segregation is a sign of the widening gap between native Koreans and these newly arrived people, regardless of their possession of Korean citizenship. Koreans are rediscovering their Asian neighbors now through the influx of foreign brides and migrant workers, and yet Korea has a long road to establishing and implementing effective measures to ensure human rights for these people, and to connect them to local communities where they can feel a sense of belonging rather than segregation.

Jooyeon Rhee

Jooyeon Rhee received her PhD from York University in Canada in 2011. She was a Luce Postdoctoral Fellow at Wittenberg University (2012-3) and is currently a lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem where she teaches social and cultural history of modern Korea, Korean cinema and popular culture, and historical memory and trauma in Korean and Japanese literature. Her research interests include literature and film of Korean diaspora in Japan, arts and human rights, and gender and ethnic identity in Korean popular culture.


Works Cited

Chŏn, Hyŏngbae. 2009. “Oegugin kŭlloja koyong chŏngcha’ek [Employment policies on   migrant workers in Korea].” Justice 109: 290–315.

Harvey, David. 2009. Cosmopolitanism and the Geographies of Freedom. New York:

Columbia University Press.

Ishiwata, Eric. 2011. “‘Probably Impossible’: Multiculturalism and Pluralisation in

Present-Day Japan.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37 (10): 1605–26.

Kang, Jinung. 2012. “Diasup’ora wa hyŏnjae yŏnbyŏn chosŏnjok ŭi sangsang toen

kongdongch’e [Diaspora and the imagined community of the ethnic Koreans

in contemporary Yanbian prefecture].” Han’guk sahoehak 46(4): 96–136.

Kim, Hyesun. 2006. “Han’guk ŭi tamunhwa sahoe tamnon kwa kyŏrhon iju yŏsŏng

[Multicultural discourses and foreign brides in Korea].” Han’guk sahoehak,

special issue: 47–78.

Kim, Hyuk-Rae, and Ingyu Oh. 2011. “Migration and Multiculturalism Contention in East Asia.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37, no. 10: 1563–81.

Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar, and Joon K. Kim. 2011. “Multicultural East-Asia: An Introduction.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37, no. 10: 1555–61.

Pak, Pŏmsin. Namasŭt’e. Seoul: Han’gyŏre ch’ulp’ansa, 2005.

Sōji, Takasaki. 2006. Singminji Chosŏn ŭi ilbonindŭl [The Japanese residents in colonial Korea]. Seoul: Yŏksa wa pip’yŏngsa.

Suh, Jae-Jung, Sunwon Park, and Hahn Y. Kim. 2012. “Democratic Consolidation and Its

Limits in Korea: Dilemmas of Cooptation,” Asian Survey, 52 (5): 822-844.

Yang, Hyŏna. 2013. “Kajok anŭro dŭrŏ on han’guk ŭi tamunhwa juŭi sirhŏm [An

experimentation of multiculturalism in Korean families].” Justice 134(2): 298–335.


[1] The relative poverty rate jumped from 7.8 % in 1990 to 14.9% in 2010; and 8.4% of the whole population lived below the poverty line in 2010 (Suh, Park, and Kim 2012, 842).

[2] The number of Japanese residents in colonial Korea reached about 750,000 in 1942; it has been estimated that the total population of colonial Korea was about 20 million (Sōji 2006).

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