Posted on October 12, 2020

What Influences South Korean Perceptions on Immigration?

Timothy S. Rich et al., The Diplomat, October 5, 2020

South Korea has not been a major destination for immigration historically. Even today, most attention is focused on the 30,000+ arrivals from North Korea since 1998. Meanwhile, South Korea’s declining birth rate demonstrates a need for immigration, whether ethnically Korean or otherwise. Ethnic Koreans in the region often were provided visa privileges, yet struggled to integrate, while “mixed-blood” residents faced social and institutional discrimination. As non-Korean immigration slowly increased, tolerance for multiculturalism has lagged behind and has further been under analyzed, with discrimination and hostility toward immigrants still commonplace.

As a historically ethnically homogeneous state with less than 5 percent of the population immigrants, the assumption remained that the public preferred ethnic Korean immigration. Yet few studies directly identified whether there were preferences across ethnic Korean groups. For example in 2016 Shang E. Ha, Soo Jin Cho,  and Jeong-Han Kang found that the South Korean public preferred North Koreans over ethnic Koreans from China (Joseonjok). {snip}


Many of the concerns about economic immigration in South Korea parallel public concerns seen in other developed states. However, South Korea has also recently become a destination for asylum seekers as well. {snip} Limited comparative research finds that majorities of South Koreans do not support accepting non-Korean and especially Muslim refugees, especially compared to accepting North Koreans. Meanwhile, limited evidence suggests that immigration from European and other Western countries does not elicit the same concerns, perhaps due to assumptions that such migration is short-term and often in areas of high demand (e.g. teaching English).

We wanted to directly test the extent to which the South Korean public differentiates among immigrant groups, and specifically to what extent various ethnic Korean immigrant groups in general or specific co-ethnic immigrants are preferred to non-ethnic Korean immigrants. In addition, we wanted to identify whether South Koreans may just be hesitant to support immigration of any kind.

To tackle these issues, we surveyed 1,200 South Koreans during September 9-18, via a web survey conducted by Macromill Embrain, using quota sampling by region and gender. We randomly assigned respondents to one of eight prompts to evaluate on a five-point scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree).


Starting with ethnic Koreans, we find the undifferentiated prompt (Version 1) elicits more opposition (42.28 percent) than support (19.46 percent). {snip}

The group South Koreans are least likely to want to encourage to move to South Korea are ethnic Koreans from China (59.59 percent), followed by North Koreans (50.32 percent). One possible explanation for this could be that North Koreans receive government assistance after defecting to South Korea, and therefore are commonly viewed as an economic burden on the country. Ethnic Koreans from China likely are viewed as economic migrants than refugees. {snip}

Interestingly, the figure above shows that South Koreans are most likely to agree with encouraging ethnic Koreans from Central Asia or Russia out of all the ethnic Koreans mentioned. {snip}

South Koreans were even less likely to agree with encouraging non-ethnic Koreans to move to South Korea. In particular, 62.92 percent either disagreed or strongly disagreed with encouraging Africans to move to South Korea, with majorities not supportive of encouraging Middle Eastern (54.6 percent) or Southeast Asia migration (56.38 percent) either.

In contrast, Europeans seem to be an outlier for views on non-ethnic Koreans with only 30.46 percent of South Koreans disagreeing with encouraging their immigration. Of all groups, European immigration was the only group in which a majority of respondents (52.98 percent) stated they neither disagreed nor agreed with encouraging immigration. Notably, more people supported encouraging Europeans to immigrate to South Korea than similar encouragement for ethnic Koreans from China or North Koreans. {snip}


Comparing both figures, we can see that South Koreans overall are more welcoming toward ethnic Koreans, but not by wide margins, with most respondents hesitant to encourage immigration of any group. {snip}