Immigration essential to solving low birthrate

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Immigration essential to solving low birthrate

International marriages are on the rise in Korea, and it’s a trend encouraged by the government because of the country’s rapidly aging population and accompanying low birthrate, one of the lowest in the world.

But Korea must confront potential pitfalls for a multiethnic society to flourish, in large part because Korea has been a homogenous society for thousands of years, reluctant to open itself up to foreigners.

A recent study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs projected that immigrants and their descendants will account for more than 5 percent of the Korean population by 2050. That’s more than 2 million people, a sevenfold increase from the 309,841 this year.

According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, international marriages now make up 10 percent of all marriages in Korea. The ministry said the number of interracial children rose from 44,258 in 2007 to 121,935 in 2010.

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To help absorb these multiethnic families, the ministry four years ago established about 160 family-support centers across the nation that offer language education and vocational training because immigrants often suffer from language and cultural barriers.

“The number of mixed-race children will continue to grow and [the future of] the Korean population depends on the fate of the immigrants’ descendants,” said Lee Sam-sik, director of the low-fertility division at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

Without helping immigrants assimilate, experts say, Korean society could suffer from cultural tension and strife, especially as the children of these multiethnic unions enter the country’s school system and become adults.

Some observers say the government must come up with policies to encourage Korean society to embrace these multiethnic arrangements - often referred to as multicultural unions - which would help keep strife between different cultures to a minimum.

“Korea now stands at the crossroads of success or failure on immigration policy,” Lee said.

Lee said Korea’s current situation is similar to what Japan has experienced.

“Japan saw a boom in international marriages between the 1980s and 1990s, but that didn’t last long because the country failed to immerse these women into Japanese society,” Lee said. “The trend has slowed, with fewer Asian marriage immigrants coming to Japan since 2000.”

Nihon Keizai Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, reported that there were 36,969 international marriages in Japan in 2006, but that figure dropped 20 percent by 2008. Divorces among multiethnic couples in Japan were also on the rise, the newspaper said.

But Chung Ki-seon, a senior researcher at the Migration Research and Training Center, part of the International Organization for Migration, said that it’s too early to judge whether Japan’s immigration policies have failed. Chung said Japan’s economic downturn can be blamed in part for the decline in immigration.

Lee believes the increase of mixed-race children will help Korea rejuvenate its rapidly graying society and ease the slowing birthrate.

Korea has among the lowest birthrates in the world, with an average fertility rate of 1.25, compared to 1.71 worldwide, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

According to Statistics Korea, Korea’s fertility rate this year is lower than Japan’s rate of 1.27 and about half of the United States’ rate of 2.02. China, where the government has tried to curb its fertility rate, recorded a 1.79.

The OECD reports that while people aged 65 and over account for 11 percent of the Korean population this year, the figure will shoot up to 38.2 percent in 40 years. This would be one of the steepest increases in the world: the average percentage of population aged 65 and over among OECD member countries is 14.8 percent, a figure that is projected to increase to 25.8 percent in 2050. In the U.S., the elderly population will be 20.2 percent in 2050, up from 13 percent this year.

These statistics have alarmed the Lee Myung-bak administration, which has instituted a campaign to increase the birthrate.

Politicians are paying close attention to the surge in the number of multiethnic children, in part because they would have the right to vote when they turn 19.

The ruling Grand National Party has responded to such trends by supporting multiethnic centers in each district and devising assistance programs for families.

And Korea’s first foreign-born citizen to be elected a representative on the Gyeonggi Provincial Council in June, Lee Ra, ran on the GNP ticket.

Lee, 33, became a Korean citizen in 2008 after following her Korean husband to the country from Mongolia in 2003. Lee, a vocal advocate for Korea’s multiethnic families, is vice chairwoman of the Married Immigrants’ Network and head of the Seoul Immigration Office’s Mongolian branch.

Foreigners in Korea have largely settled into low-incomes lives. Most foreign women marry older farmers or manual laborers, and 59.7 percent of mixed-race families live on less than 2 million won ($1,786) per month, according to statistics from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

Gyeonggi Councilor Lee Ra said it’s urgent to provide vocational-certificate exams - which are needed to get certain jobs - in Chinese, Japanese and English, to help boost multiethnic families’ household earnings.

“Ninety percent of marriage immigrants want to get a job, and they want to get vocational certificates,” Lee said. “They do well on practical tests, but they fail on written tests because most of the written tests are in Korean.”

Most immigrants say they want education in the accounting, cooking and beauty industries, Lee said.

The Rainbow Chorus, created last October, is made up of children from multiethnic families, with the goal of using song to raise public awareness about the increasing multiethnic influence on Korean society.

“The chorus has embraced interracial children who cannot adjust well in schools,” said Lee Hyun-jung, director of the Center for Multicultural Korea, which established the children’s choir. “But since they participated in the chorus and performed in concerts several times, they managed to gain self-esteem.”

The chorus has also become quite popular - the group was featured in a recent TV commercial for Hyundai Motor.

Lee said the G-20 organizing committee is considering inviting the chorus to ceremonies at the start of the summit.

“I feel happy whenever I’m praised by the audience after a performance,” said Jang Mi-ju, a 10-year-old girl who has a Korean mother and Taiwanese father.

Said Mi-ju’s mother Kim Hye-ryon: “I think Mi-ju shares some kind of emotional connection with other members of the chorus, which she doesn’t have with peers in school. She always enjoys going to singing classes, regardless of how far the practice is from home.”

Lee Ra, the Gyeonggi councilwoman, wants there to be after-school study space for children from multiethnic homes to help them catch up on school work.

“I wish there was an education program in which multiethnic mothers could learn the preschool curriculum,” Lee said. “Foreign mothers face a hard reality because they don’t have knowledge about Korean education standards and they even don’t know, for example, the name of the songs that their kids have learned in preschool.”

Yoon Jin-sook, an elementary-school teacher in Incheon, said learning the language is a top priority for multiethnic children.

“They are very poor with their Korean skills, but that actually leads to other problems because they can’t comprehend passages or questions in other subjects,” said Yoon, who has two multiracial children in her class.

Lee Sam-sik said Korea needs to pay attention to multiethnic children and treat them as equal members of society because “they will be part of our future.”


By Kim Mi-ju, Kim Hee-jin [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]
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