Multicultural Challenges and Integration Policies

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About this sample


Words: 2631 |

Pages: 6|

14 min read

Published: Feb 13, 2024

Words: 2631|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: Feb 13, 2024

In the last few decades, the number of immigrants in South Korea has been drastically increasing. Therefore, it is inevitable that South Korea has transformed from a homogeneous nation-state to a ‘multicultural society’. So what does ‘multiculturalism’ mean to South Korea exactly and what is the role of the South Korean government to cope with this significant inflow of immigrants in South Korea? Therefore, this paper analyzes the South Korea’s laws and policies on immigration and integration.

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Existing policies of immigrants in South Korea focuses on South Korea’s two largest groups of immigrants which are migrant workers and migrant brides. These policies identify the failure of the South Korean government to provide equal legal rights of citizenship to these two immigrant groups with ‘ethnic nationalism’ and identify the extension of equal legal rights to citizenship with ‘multiculturalism’ (Lim, 2003; Lee and Park, 2005; Kim, 2007; Chung and Kim, 2012; Kim and Kwon, 2012). This body of scholarship effectively applies the concepts of ethnic nationalism and multiculturalism in order to suggest continuity in the South Korean state’s ethnically homogeneous understanding of the Korean nation. However, this body of scholarship reveals shortcomings in employing a narrow legal focus and in failing to define both the terms ‘ethnic nationalism’ and ‘multiculturalism’. Therefore, these concepts cannot fully explain why and how South Korea’s ‘multicultural’ immigration laws and policies fail to include immigrants as members of the South Korean nation. While this paper acknowledges that South Korea’s multicultural society contains a large variety of minority ethnic and cultural groups, this paper focuses on the state’s laws and policies on migrant workers and migrant brides.

From 1988 onwards, South Korean governments revised Korea’s immigration laws and policies in order to allow for the inflow of immigrants. Initially, they started allowing the temporary immigration of labor migrants. Later the administration started facilitating the permanent immigration of marriage migrants. Thus, the number of migrants in Korea rapidly increased up to 2,416,503 in 2019 which comprises 4.6% of the total population. This rapid increase in inbound migration flow has created pressure for the redefinition of Korea’s mono-ethnic national identity. Consequently, from 2006 onwards the administration started implementing ‘multiculturalism’ as a state policy. So, how does South Korea’s ‘multicultural’ immigration and integration laws and policies regulate South Korea’s criteria of national belonging and how these laws and policies affect the inclusion of immigrants as South Korean citizens? In order to answer these questions, we will look into the immigration and integration laws and policies concerning labor migrants, the largest group of short-term migrants, and marriage migrants, the largest group of long-term migrants.

Firstly we will look into the immigration laws and policies of labor migrants. When Korean workers started emphasizing on their labor rights in the 1980s, their living standards rose and they became reluctant to perform labor-intensive work (Kim, 2004). So by 1987, the Small and Medium Enterprises sector faced a labor shortage of unskilled and low-skilled workers (Gray, 2007). To solve this problem, laws and policies were implemented to facilitate the temporary migration of low-skilled, male migrant workers into Korea. In doing so, these laws and policies maximize the economic benefits of labor migration while maintaining its supposed ethnic homogeneity.

In 1994, the Industrial Trainee System (ITS) was introduced which promoted the temporary migration of low-skilled migrant workers. Under this system, the government assigned the Korean Federation for Small Businesses (KFSB) to recruit migrant workers as ‘trainees’. Although officially designated ‘trainee’, Korean companies did not provide these migrant workers with training. Instead, these companies expected migrant workers to fulfil two years of manual labor before returning to their countries of origin.

Despite migrant workers’ expectations to chase the ‘Korean dream’, their relationship with Korean society quickly soured as ITS exploited both non-ethnic and ethnic Korean migrant workers economically (Lim, 2006). For example, ITS excluded ‘trainees’ from the coverage under Korea’s Labor Standards Law granted to full-time workers, therefore lacked basic labor rights (Gray, 2007). Also, ITS prohibited ‘trainees’ from moving workplaces. Not to mention nonpayment of wages, lack of overtime pay, excessive work hours, unsafe working conditions and nonexistent compensation for industrial accidents as well as verbal, physical and sexual assault (Lim, 2006). Unsurprisingly, the exploitation of ITS system caused significant backlash from migrant workers.

For Korea’s expanding civil society movement, the continuous violations of the human rights of migrant workers gave rise to campaigns to improve the rights of migrant workers. Together, their large-scale protests and petition campaigns led the extension of small but increasing in migrant workers’ rights. For example, in 1993 the government granted ‘trainees’ the right of compensation to industrial injury, in 1997 the government modified the ITS and allowed ‘trainees’ a three year visa for two years of ‘traineeship’ and one year of ‘work’ and in 1998 the government granted both legal and illegal migrant workers protection under the Labor Standards Law. However, these improvements did not benefit illegal migrant workers, as these did not exercise their rights and report violations of the law out of the well-founded fear of being deported (Gray, 2007).

Given the inability to solve the problems of ITS, the migrant advocacy movement attempted to find more effective solutions to migrant workers’ problems. For example, in 1995 migrant support NGOs decided to form the Joint Committee for Migrants in Korea (JCMK). The JCMK pledged to introduce a new legal framework, Work Permit System (WPS). This system sought to abolish ITS, extend the full range of domestic labor rights to all migrant workers and grant illegal migrant workers in Korea a full amnesty. Initially, the government of Kim Dae-Jung, one of the foremost proponents of South Korea’s democratization movement, sought to implement the WPS in 2000. However, the efforts of the JCMK failed until the government of Roh Moo-Hyun, a former human rights lawyer.

In 2004, the Roh Moo-Hyun administration implemented the ‘Employment Permit System’ (EPS). This system provided legal migrant workers with full coverage under the Labor Standards Act. Furthermore, illegal migrant workers were offered a limited-time amnesty and the chance to register as worker under the EPS. Thus the number of illegal migrants drastically decreased. However, this system also differentiated between ethnic Korean and non-ethnic Korean low-skilled migrant workers by providing the former with preferential rights to labor and settlement while prohibiting the latter from permanently settling in Korea. Hence South Korean governments explicitly designed their labor migration laws and policies to prohibit the permanent settlement of male, non-ethnic Korean migrant workers in Korea.

In contrast, these same administrations provided ethnic Korean migrants with rights to labor and settlement so that they could contribute to South Korea’s economy without jeopardizing its ethnic homogeneity. Therefore, the Overseas Korean Act was implemented in 1998 (Nora Kim, 2008). However, the Overseas Korean Act initially only benefited high-skilled ethnic Koreans from ‘advanced’ countries like the USA and excluded low-skilled Koreans from ‘underdeveloped’ countries such as China.

In objection to this discrimination, Korean migrant NGOs embarked on a vigorous campaign which demanded the equal treatment of low and high-skilled ethnic Korean workers based on their shared ethnicity. In response, the Roh Moo-Hyun administration modified the EPS in 2004 to include Special Work Permits for low-skilled ethnic Koreans which provided the right to preferential allocation for jobs in the construction and service sectors and the right to change workplaces. Furthermore, in 2010, the Overseas Korean Act was modified so that it would apply to all overseas ethnic Koreans, regardless of the skill level or wealth. Thus, in contrast to the prohibition on the settlement of low-skilled, non-ethnic Korean migrant workers, South Korean governments expressly facilitated the permanent immigration of ethnic Korean migrant workers based on their ethnic kinship.

In conclusion, South Korea’s immigration laws for migrant workers adopt an ethnocentric, developmentalist form of different exclusion based on the absence of shared ethnicity and the expected economic benefits of labor migration to the country. This can be seen from the categorized labor migrants’ right to labor and settlement along the patrilineal fault line of ethnicity between male ethnic Korean migrant workers and male non-ethnic Korean migrant workers. By facilitating the temporary migration of labor migrants, non-ethnic and ethnic Korean migrant workers are known as a flexible labor force which contributes to the economy of the Korean nation-state. Simultaneously, by prohibiting the permanent stay of low-skilled non-ethnic Korean migrants, maintains Korea’s supposed ethnic homogeneity. However, as the next topic explains, South Korea’s ethnic principle of patrilineal descent also facilitates immigration as subsequent South Korean governments actively encouraged ethnic Korean men to marry foreign, non-ethnic Korean women under the presumption that these would assimilate into ethnically and culturally ‘Korean’ households.

Now we shall look into the immigration laws and policies of marriage migrants. From 1988 onwards, rising costs of living in urban areas caused families to limit their reproductive behavior. Therefore, the Korean fertility rate dropped from 2.1 children in 1984 to 0.98 children per family in 2018. This declining birth rate gives rise to an aging society. Young Korean women migrate to cities in groups in the hope of finding better educational, occupational and marital opportunities worsen this trend in rural areas. This resulted in a rural ‘crisis’ because farmers cannot find a wife to extend their family line. To solve these problems, South Korean governments implemented laws and policies to facilitate the permanent migration of ethnic Korean and Southeast-Asian migrant brides into Korea. This sub-topic argues that South Korea’s ‘multicultural’ immigration and integration laws and policies facilitated the immigration of migrant brides into Korea based on the ethnocentric expectation of their socio-cultural assimilability into the Korean family as ‘Korean’ wives, daughters-in-law and mothers. Therefore, Korean society relegates migrant brides that fail to meet the Korean ethno-cultural norms to second-class citizens.

From the early 1990’s onwards, Korean governments started organizing ‘marriage tours’ to encourage marriages between Korean farmers and ethnic Korean-Chinese women. At the time, South Korean society expected that these women to be dutiful ‘Korean’ wives and form an ideal solution to South Korea’s demographic problems (Freeman, 2005). However, these expectations failed to consider the desires of migrant brides themselves like finding independence, adventure, entrepreneurship and wanting to lead a ‘modern’ life in a ‘developed country’(Freeman, 2005). However, these women ended up marrying poor, uneducated husbands living in rural villages. To make matters worse, the Koreans expected these women to be grateful for the ‘opportunity’ to live in a developed country, expected these women to adopt patriarchal gender roles as care-givers and housewives and criticized them for failing to meet Korean cultural norms. As the result, these ethnic Korean migrant brides ran away to escape the harsh circumstances they found themselves in. Consequently, measures to limit further ‘fake marriages’ were taken.

Due to the persistence of Korea’s demographic problems, new legislation was implemented to facilitate the immigration of South-East Asian migrant brides. For example, the legalization of the private marriage broker business in 1999 facilitated the immigration of migrant brides on a commercial basis. Furthermore, in 1997 the Nationality Law was modified so that both male and female spouses of Korean nationals would be able to obtain the Korean nationality, but only following a two year waiting period (Shim, 2012). As a result, migrant brides who divorced their Korean husbands before their naturalization had to leave South Korea. However, from 2004 onwards, non-naturalized migrant brides who divorce their Korean spouses were allowed to stay in Korea on the condition that they take care of their parents-in-law and Korean children (Hyekyung Lee, 2008). As such, South Korea’s ‘multicultural’ immigration and integration laws constituted migrant brides’ legal rights and duties as citizens in terms of their role as ‘Korean’ mothers.

Interestingly, despite the fact that these marriage brokers married ethnic Korean men to foreign, non-ethnic Korean women, the Korean communities still expects these women to fulfill the role of ‘Korean’ wives, daughters-in-law and mothers. This is due to the assumption that “non-Korean women were assimilable into South Korean families” (Abelmann and Kim, 2005). In fact, private marriage brokers explicitly catered to these expectations by advertising women from Vietnam and the Philippines as ‘pure’ and ‘traditional’ women. According to these advertisements, these migrant brides’ from ‘underdeveloped’ countries can be easily integrated into Korean communities. However, Korean communities again failed to consider the desires of migrant brides themselves. These migrant brides came to Korea expecting they would live their lives in affluence, engage in romantic relationships with Korean men, establish a ‘modern’ nuclear family and combine motherhood with the freedom to work (Kim, 2007). Thus, neither Korean families in law, with their ethnocentric expectations of sociocultural assimilation, nor South-East Asian migrant brides, with their fantasies of affluence and romance, were prepared for the realities of international marriage.

As it would turn out, the expectations of South-East Asian migrant brides clashed with the realities of their new residence. South-East Asian migrant brides were expected to assist with hard physical labor on the farm and to take care of their aging parents in law and raise their children. Furthermore, migrant brides were controlled by the Korean families in law, in molding these migrant brides into ideal ‘Korean’ wives. On the other hand, migrant brides themselves criticized rural communities’ expectations of their servitude and cultural assimilation. For example, a member of the Korea Filipino Wives’ Association, May Cordova, expressed that “most Koreans force us to follow their culture. We do, but they also want us to forget our own culture. That’s the cause of problems of married migrant couples” (ISIS International, 2008). However, migrant brides’ effort to express their discomfort has little to no effect. Migrant brides’ efforts to assert their own volition typically result in sleeping with their husband or threatening with divorce in order to renegotiate their roles in the household (Kim, 2007). However, when South-East Asian migrant brides run away or divorce their husbands, municipal governments and Korean media protest and frame those women as selfish, irresponsible ‘runaway brides’ who abandon their families and fool their men (Ku, 2012). South Korea’s municipal governments, communities and media thus seem to have little empathy for the difficulty of migrant brides in adapting to the ideals of ‘Korean’ behavior.

The above responses of Korean society to international marriage migration suggest that Korean society continues to think Korea as both mono-ethnic and mono-cultural. In fact, recent research suggests that Koreans are unable or unwilling to cope with difference from the Korean norm in general. For example, the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs notes that Koreans believe that conflicts arise due to the difference in language (57.8%), differences in religion (50.8%) and even out of differences in skin color (47.5%) (Korea Herald, 2012). As such, despite rapid increases of immigration into South Korea, South Koreans continue to uphold their self-identification with a mono-ethnic, mono-cultural nation.

In the final equation, the South Korean government facilitates the immigration of migrant brides expecting their contributions to the reproduction of the Korean nation. Conversely, South Korean society makes the recognition of migrant brides’ full citizenship; equal inclusion in terms of legal rights, duties and “dignity, thriving and well-being”, dependent on migrant brides’ complete adaptation to Korean socio-cultural norms (Rosaldo’s, 1994). As these expectations clash with those of migrant brides’, migrant brides are effectively relegated to second-class citizens and thus increasingly divorce their husbands and return to their home country. That said, in recent years, the South Korean government has acknowledged the challenge that migrant brides immigration form to Korea’s supposedly mono-ethnic, mono-cultural society by instituting ‘multicultural’ integration laws and policies.

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All in all, problems concerning immigration and integration should not be taken lightly and should be brought up more frequently. Moreover, better immigration and integration laws and policies benefiting labor migrants and marriage migrants should also be implemented. Although I understand the Korean citizens’ concern of losing the country’s ethnic national identity, however we should also think for those who migrate here to in order to start fresh and to build a better life for themselves.  

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Dr. Oliver Johnson

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Multicultural Challenges and Integration Policies. (2024, February 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from
“Multicultural Challenges and Integration Policies.” GradesFixer, 13 Feb. 2024,
Multicultural Challenges and Integration Policies. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 20 Jun. 2024].
Multicultural Challenges and Integration Policies [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2024 Feb 13 [cited 2024 Jun 20]. Available from:
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