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     May 4, 2012

Strangers in a strange Korean land
By Steven Borowiec

SEOUL - Garibong district was once one of Seoul's main industrial areas and a driving force behind the country's stunning 20th-century economic growth.

Nowadays, most of the South Koreans who used to work in the area's shops and factories have moved on and migrants from elsewhere in Asia have moved in. Many of them are ethnic Koreans from China who come to South Korea seeking economic opportunity. There is believed to be a large population of illegal workers in the area and this is expected to balloon this year.

Visas for more than 70,000 ethnic Koreans from China (known locally as Joseonjok) will expire in 2012 and aren't eligible for renewal. Many of them come from the Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China to seek work in South Korea. Most of them


are descendants of Koreans who fled Korea between 1860 and 1945 due to famine and Japanese occupation.

Kim Sook-ja, 55, is an exceptional success story for a Joseonjok. She came to Seoul from China 15 years ago and runs a popular restaurant in Garibong that sells traditional Manchurian cuisine. About the Joseonjok facing deportation, she said, "South Korean won doesn't go as far in China as it used to, so people need to stay longer to earn enough money. Many will stay illegally, those who go back will have to wait for a year then try to return."

Kim Sook-ja, in addition to being a restaurant owner, is head of the Korean Compatriots United Congress, a civic group representing ethnic Koreans in China.

Ethnic Koreans from China are entitled to shorter visas and stricter rules of employment than ethnic Koreans from wealthier countries like the US, Canada or Japan. On the patio outside her busy restaurant, Kim said, "The South Korean government treats ethnic Koreans from the US and Japan as part of the same race, but it treats us like aliens. But we're a minority in China too; we're treated as foreigners in both countries."

The Joseonjok now face a difficult choice, as jobs are hard to come by in their home region of China and there is already a long waiting list of Joseonjok seeking to come here. Some are already disqualified from the program due to age restrictions. Staying illegally in South Korea presents the risk of deportation and inability to access social services such as healthcare.

Many cite discrimination in China as one reason for leaving, but they can also face an unfriendly welcome on arrival in their supposed ethnic homeland. A couple of high-profile murders allegedly committed by Korean-Chinese have made things harder on them as a whole.

One murder was committed in Suwon, an industrial suburb of Seoul. A middle-aged ethnic Korean man of Chinese nationality assaulted and abducted a 28-year-old woman on the street. He then took her to his home where he raped, murdered and dismembered her.

He claimed that he felt discriminated against in South Korea and that part of his motivation for the crime was a perceived slight by the eventual victim. (CCTV footage has shown that to be untrue.)

In another case, a Joseonjok man allegedly stabbed to death a worker at a job placement agency out of frustration over unpaid wages.

It's not only Korean-Chinese whose work-related welcome is running out in South Korea. Around 67,000 migrant workers of other nationalities are facing the same choice between overstaying their visas or leaving the country, as their six-year visas are running out.

Many foreign workers, mostly from South and Southeast Asia, come here on five-year visas to do jobs South Koreans don't care for at wages they wouldn't work for. Besides marrying a South Korean, there is no way for them to acquire permanent residency.
The last time South Korea cracked down on foreign workers, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, it led to a shortage of labor in the construction and manufacturing industries. A variety of Korean sectors struggle at the best of times to compete with their lower-cost Chinese counterparts; limiting their access to cheap labor makes it almost impossible for them to survive.

According to Udaya Rai, a Nepalese national and leader of the South Korea's Migrants' Trade Union, migrant workers are prevented from extending their visas because South Korean companies prefer newly arrived workers. "It's easier to order workers around if they are new. Companies want to always move workers in and out so they can't organize," Rai said in an interview.

"They don't want workers to be in one place a long time and get to know how things work, which companies are good, which are bad."

Ironically, this comes at a time of unprecedented success for outsiders in South Korea. In the April 11 parliamentary elections, Jasmine Lee, a naturalized Korean of Philippine origin and Cho Myung-chul, a North Korean defector, were elected as members of parliament. Lee's election victory led to spirited, and at times repugnant, debate over multiculturalism in Korea.

Jasmine Lee's educational credentials were called into question in online forums. She had pledged in her campaign to assist Korea's growing numbers of multicultural families, leading some to argue that she had been installed by outsiders to provide a way for poor Southeast Asians to claim social assistance in South Korea.

South Korea's struggles to integrate outsiders are often attributed to anxiety about their ethnic purity, but as the case of the Joseonjok shows, even members of the Korean race can be unwelcome here.

Poverty and concerns over state welfare benefits are also at times offered as an explanation. But Jasmine Lee has reached an exceptional level of prominence and is still subject to boorish disparagement.

The economic reality is that South Korea requires immigration to offset its impending demographic crisis. It is one of the most rapidly aging societies on earth. A Statistics Korea report released on April 26 shows that by 2035, 60% of South Korean breadwinners will be over the age of 60, up from 25% in 2010.

Due to factors such as the high cost of raising and educating children, the South Korean population is not growing. An obvious solution is to encourage immigration, but South Korea's squeamishness about sharing their country with outsiders still prevents this.

Steven Borowiec is a South Korea-based writer.

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