In a press conference earlier this month, Bank of Korea Governor Kim Choong-soo spoke frankly on a very controversial issue: South Korean immigration. “I believe it would be appropriate for us to embrace migrant workers with future-oriented and open immigration policies,” he said. In Canada, that might sound like a bunch of political hot air—but Korea is not Canada. At a time when the country seems otherwise on top of the world, demographic realities now include the threat of economic blowback.
South Korea, thanks largely to its incredibly closed immigration system, has the fastest aging population in the world—worse than even Japan, a country where adult diapers now outsell those for babies. Indeed, a report by the Royal Bank of Scotland published last June indicated that the country’s working-age population would begin to contract by 2016. And by 2045, the average age will have reached an astronomical 50.
The thing is, South Koreans are having a mere 1.2 kids per woman, down from over 6 in 1960. That fertility rate would be troublesome even with the heavy immigration practices of Western countries like Canada, where we have 1.7 kids for every woman. For Korea, it’s a disaster in waiting.
Yet many Koreans aren’t particularly eager to open the immigration floodgates, and won’t be swayed by economic arguments alone. To put it bluntly, racism is a big problem in South Korea. Specifically, race-mixing. It’s bad enough that biracial South Koreans were banned from serving in the military until 2011. Or consider the story of half-Korean, half-black pop star Insooni, who went so far as to fly to America to have her baby, just so that her daughter would have the option of leaving. Things have gotten better since Insooni’s time growing up—back then, her mother was disowned for keeping her—but the problem remains a serious one.
Newly elected South Korean President Park Geun-hye has proposed methods to encourage higher birth rates, such as slashing tuition fees and expanding state childcare, but has said little on immigration. The clock is ticking. Today, among its 50 million citizens, only about 60,000 are ethnic minorities. If South Korea wants to stay on top, that number will need to increase drastically.