The South Korean government’s efforts to alleviate the problems of aging and low fertility have met with resistance from civil anti-Chinese sentiment. At the end of April this year, the South Korean government teased that it would amend the Nationality Act to facilitate the naturalization of minor children of foreigners with permanent residency status. However, the amendment drew strong public resentment. They say that the vast majority of the beneficiaries are Chinese Koreans and overseas Chinese, and that this is in fact a “Chinese preferential act.
But Korean immigration policy and legal experts interviewed by Voice of America do not share this view. They argue that the argument of the Chinese Preference Act is not valid from either a theoretical or practical point of view, and that changes in Korea’s immigration policy are inevitable in the medium to long term and cannot be affected by negative feelings toward a specific country.
Korea wants to relax naturalization for children of foreigners with permanent residence status
According to the Ministry of Justice’s Legislative Preview website, there is currently no naturalization system for children of foreigners with permanent residency status, and even if they are born and live in Korea, it is basically impossible for them to acquire Korean nationality until their parents are naturalized or until they are granted naturalization as adults. The amendment will create a new naturalization system in which “minor children of foreigners with permanent residence status born in Korea will be able to acquire Korean nationality by simply declaring it.
According to the information, the purpose of the system is “to respond to the demographic changes brought about by the low fertility and aging society in advance, and to secure the future human resources and workforce through the cohesiveness of the same nationality based on the bond between the children of foreigners with permanent residency and Korean society.
South Korea has one of the highest levels of low fertility and aging in the world, even faster than neighboring Japan. According to a report released in March this year by the Korea Economic Research Institute, a subsidiary of the National Economist Federation, South Korea’s total fertility rate has declined at an average annual rate of 3.1 percent since 1970 to 2018, while the share of the population aged 65 or older has climbed at an average annual rate of 3.3 percent, both of which are the fastest among OECD member countries.
Under the double whammy, the total population of Korea declined naturally for the first time last year. South Korea’s Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki recently warned in a Facebook post that the country will experience a “demographic earthquake” in 2030 at the earliest. A population earthquake is a phenomenon in which an aging population leads to fundamental changes in the economy, culture and other areas of society. According to a report by the International Monetary Fund titled “Korea’s Economic Growth Outlook: Overcoming Demographic Factors and the New Coronavirus,” the potential growth rate of Korea’s economy, currently at 2.5%, will fall to 2.0% by 2030, and demographic factors will be the main cause of this change.
Faced with this situation, there is a growing opinion in Korea that immigration policy should be linked to population issues. In fact, data jointly released by the Korea Statistics Agency and the Ministry of Justice since 2017 show that the immigrant population (resident foreigners over 15 years old and those who have been granted naturalization within five years) has been increasing year by year, reaching 1.38 million last year.
Questioned “Chinese Preference Act”, Korean people strongly oppose
According to the Ministry of Justice, if the new system is passed, 3,930 people will be eligible for the new system based on last year’s statistics, and another 600-700 people will be eligible every year. However, the Chosun Ilbo and other Korean media reported that among the current applicants, 3,725 are Korean and Chinese children of Chinese nationality, accounting for 94.8% of the total.
This has caused an uproar among the Korean public. Many netizens believe that the system is a pro-Chinese policy of the government and is meant to “give preferential treatment to the Chinese,” while others have fiercely criticized the move as “ceding the country to China. Two days after the preview of the legislation, the South Korean public launched a sign-up on the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae’s sign-up website, and the number of sign-ups exceeded 300,000 in a month’s time.
As the controversy continued to fester, the South Korean Ministry of Justice explained at the end of last month through online hearings and regular press conferences that it “did not consider making nationals of a particular country Korean” and that the criteria for selection were two generations of Korean-born nationals with Korean ancestry and historical ties, and “Chinese of Korean descent, Chinese born in Korea, and Chinese born in Korea. The criteria were selected to include Chinese of Korean descent, second-generation Taiwanese born and raised in Korea, and Koreans and other expatriates.
However, instead of subsiding, the opposition has intensified, with heavyweights from South Korea’s opposition parties also voicing their opposition. Ahn Cheol-soo, the head of the Nationalist Party and considered a strong candidate for the next presidential election, pointed out in a Facebook post that “the concentration of the bill’s beneficiaries in specific countries is a serious problem” and that “the government is sincerely thinking about the future of the Republic of Korea by providing preferential treatment to Chinese people through revising the nationality law? “
Lee Jun-seok, the recently elected head of the largest opposition party, the National Power Party, also said in a televised discussion of the campaign on MBC TV that “immigration needs to be strictly managed except for special purposes such as technology and investment, and there is no need to implement a simpler procedure than the existing naturalization system in Korea.”
Anti-Chinese sentiment continues to rise, experts: immigration policy should not be disturbed
The rising anti-Chinese sentiment, reflected in a series of events from last year’s kimchi strife to this year’s Korean drama “The North Korean Exorcist” being downgraded for scenes involving China and the Korea-China Culture City project being called off, has been highlighted again in this controversy.
The data confirms this sentiment. According to a survey released last week by the Korean weekly magazine Current Affairs IN and pollster Hankook Research, South Koreans generally hold a negative view of China, breaking the old formula of “pro-China on the left, anti-China on the right,” with as many as 58.1 percent of respondents saying China is close to As many as 58.1% of the respondents believe China is close to “evil” and only 4.5% believe China is close to “good”. South Koreans’ favorable opinion of China is even lower than that of North Korea and Japan, whose relations are at a low point due to historical issues.
It is interesting to note that South Koreans’ negative sentiment toward China is not solely due to conceptual issues such as differences in political systems, but is more related to their personal experiences. According to this survey, sandstorm and haze are the biggest causes of negative perceptions of China (89.4%), followed by the New Crown epidemic (87.3%), response to the New Crown epidemic (86.9%), and illegal fishing by Chinese fishing boats (84.3%), respectively.
However, Korean experts in the field believe that it is very unreasonable to think that this amendment aims to give preferential treatment to the Chinese just because of such negative sentiments. Lee Sam-sik, a professor of policy at Hanyang University in Korea, pointed out to VOA that “according to the theory of population movement, the amount of movement is proportional to the distance; the closer the distance, the more the total amount of population movement,” so “although statistically it is easy to think that it is a preferential treatment for the Chinese, immigrants often come from neighboring countries. This is true of any country in the world, such as Germany, the United States, and so on. It is difficult to avoid a concentration of beneficiaries in a specific country when the immigration or overseas worker policy is modified.
Lee Chang-won, a research member of the Korea Immigration Policy Institute, also told Voice of America that from a practical point of view, “acquiring Korean nationality requires you to perform military service obligations, give up special exam qualifications for foreigners in university entrance exams, and compete with Koreans. Therefore, even if it is possible to obtain citizenship relatively easily, it is hard to say how many of the applicable applicants will apply. If a person is willing to give up all the benefits of being a foreigner to apply for Korean nationality, then it means that the person wants to live as a Korean. Therefore, I think the purpose of this amendment should be to make it easier for those who self-identify as Koreans to obtain Korean nationality”.
Ji-hoon Park, an attorney at DIDIMDOL, told VOA that the changes in Korea brought about by the trend of globalization are also one of the reasons for the amendment. “There are two main ways of granting nationality, which are simply the principle of jus sanguinis and the principle of territoriality. Generally multi-ethnic immigrant countries use the principle of territoriality, and mono-ethnic countries tend to be jus sanguinis,” “The U.S. is typically jus sanguinis; Korea has always been mono-ethnic, so it places importance on jus sanguinis, and only those whose parents are Korean can obtain Korean nationality. However, Korea is now gradually transforming into a multi-ethnic country, and the bill was amended to keep up with this trend.”
Because of this, Korea’s immigration policy should not be influenced by anti-Chinese sentiment. “Feelings about a particular country change with the times and the current situation. Currently, anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea is relatively serious, but it is likely to disappear again with time. I believe that in the medium to long term, changes in Korea’s nationality law and immigration policy are inevitable, so they should not be influenced by anti-Chinese sentiment, but should be formulated with an objective, medium to long term perspective,” Lee Sam-sik said.
Park also stressed that “it is unreasonable not to pass the bill just because of anti-Chinese sentiment and because more than 3,000 Chinese nationals can obtain citizenship. The overall purpose of the bill is related to the fertility rate, and the simplification of the naturalization process for foreigners is also in the right direction and in line with the global trend.