Only a decade ago, school textbooks still urged South Koreans to take pride in being of “one-blood” and “ethnically homogeneous.” Now, the country is facing the prospect of becoming a multiethnic society. While the foreign-born population is still small compared with countries with a tradition of immigration, it’s enough to challenge how South Koreans see themselves.
Among the factors driving this development is the influx of women from Southeast Asia who have come to marry rural South Korean men who have difficulty attracting Korean women willing to embrace country life. The number of marriage migrants grew to 211,000 last year from 127,000 in 2007, most of them women from Vietnam and other poorer Asian countries drawn to a better life in South Korea.
One of every 10 marriages in South Korea now involves a foreign spouse. Although overall numbers of schoolchildren in South Korea have been declining — to 6.7 million this year from 7.7 million in 2007 — as a result of one of the world’s lowest birth rates, the number of multiethnic students has been climbing by 6,000 a year in the same period.
“A multicultural society is not just coming; it’s already here,” Ms. Lee [originally from the Philippines], a member of the governing Saenuri Party, said in an interview at her office in the National Assembly.The change is driven by the combination of the low birth rate, which has created a demand for labor at the younger ages, and by urbanization, which has attracted young women to cities, where they are not tied to the traditional gender roles typical of rural society. Regardless of the reasons, though, this has to be a good sign for the region.