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     Apr 8, 2006
South Koreans find the good life in China
By Hyejin Kim

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

For decades, South Korea's out-migration rate has been among the highest in the world. In the 1960s, Koreans left their impoverished homeland for wealthy countries, especially the United States and Germany. Korean migrants dreamed they could get rich in those societies, or at least they could give their children a better future. Many gave up positions of high social

status in South Korea, as lawyers or professors, to enter US factories and laundromats.

Over the past 10 years, however, the stream of Korean emigration has been diverted from Western countries to China, now the hottest destination for Koreans moving abroad. South Korea's rise to OECD status (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development includes 30 industrialized nations that share a commitment to democratic government and market economy) has caused out-migration to turn from developed societies to developing ones.

South Korea and China normalized diplomatic relations in 1992. Since then, Koreans have flocked to China. By the year 2000, China was the top destination for trips out of the country. In 2005, South Koreans made twice as many visits to China as to any other country.

The maturing of the South Korean economy, together with China's ongoing industrialization, has spurred Korean business to look to China for manpower. According to a study by the Boston Group of consultants, wages of Chinese manufacturing laborers in 2003 were one-tenth those of South Koreans. That research predicts that at least in the near future Chinese labor costs will remain much lower that South Korean labor costs.

China has become a major engine behind South Korea's economic growth. Last year China surpassed the US to become South Korea's No 1 trading partner. Not all Korean firms in China are there for manufacturing. Samsung, for example, employs 50,000 Chinese workers in 29 factories. The firm is increasingly concentrating on research and development work in China and hiring local people for top management.

South Korea's largest companies send residential representatives to China for two to five years. Their employers provide them with new apartments and tuition for their children to enter elite schools. Representatives get used to their luxurious lives in China and once their tenure is up, they prefer to stay and open their own firms or consulting services.

The promise of China's cheap labor pool attracts another group from South Korea, small-time entrepreneurs. Some had operated factories in Korea, and then transferred to China. Others dash off to China with a small amount of capital hoping to establish their own firms. The financial crisis in 1997 pushed a wave of laid-off Koreans to China in search of business. Some take their retirement funds to open a shop or restaurant in China. More than half of the investment abroad by South Korean small and medium enterprises in 2004 went to China.

The other major motivation for South Koreans to move to China is schooling. Previously, Korean parents sent their children to school in the United States or Canada, so they could learn English and return to high-paying jobs. Now parents have another option for sending their children to study abroad. Chinese schools are far cheaper than those in Western countries and China is much closer. Furthermore, China offers relatively inexpensive international schools where students learn both Chinese and English. Koreans make up more than half of foreign students in China.

A visible sign of the rise of South Korean migration to China is the emergence of "Korea towns" in Chinese cities. South Korean businessmen, students and their families form communities in major cities, such as Beijing, Qingdao and Shanghai, as well as in some small cities. In addition, all these Korean communities are tightly connected across cities. Based in the main office of the Beijing-Korean Association, 31 local Korean associations join South Koreans across the country through regular meetings and special events. These communities are all linked by the Internet, and when one association holds an annual sports competition, for example, other associations send their teams or financial aid.

Korean restaurants, karaoke bars and grocery stores in Korea towns offer goods and services at prices far below those in South Korea. South Koreans live packed together in these towns. From their neighbors and from community leaflets, they can get information in Korean and can avoid the language barrier.

While South Korean migrants tended to stay in China on a short-term basis in the 1990s, now they prefer to stay more permanently. Rather than going back to South Korea after finishing school, young people become interested in working or starting their own businesses in China. Whereas married businessmen previously went alone back and forth to China, now they have a tendency to take their families with them. In Korea towns, these families can be satisfied with their relatively luxurious lives and with schooling opportunities for their children. The increase in long-term settlers has led to the expansion of Korea towns.

The rapid rise of South Koreans in China reveals a new concept of international migration among South Koreans. In the past, international migration was a way of seeking a better life in a wealthier country. That meant saying farewell to the homeland, possibly forever. In the earlier form of migration they worked hard as members of a minority group that sometimes faced discrimination.

Now that their country has industrialized, South Korean emigrants are no longer fleeing poverty for chances in richer countries, but using the wealth they have generated over the last decades to invest in their rising neighbor. In China, South Koreans have stayed in close contact with the home country and built up "Korean villages".

Hyejin Kim is a specialist in East Asian affairs. She is the author of two books and holds a doctorate in Global Affairs.

(Copyright 2006 Hyejin Kim.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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