[Viewpoint] Why no Chinese noodle tycoon?According to a United Nations estimate, 214 million people - 3.1 percent of the world’s population - migrated to other countries last year. The immigrant population has nearly doubled in 20 years. Many state leaders and CEOs of global companies are second-generation immigrants. Considering globalization, the number of immigrants will only grow even greater.
Keeping pace with this global trend, the Korean government is finally considering changing its immigration policies. As a start, research on establishing an agency in charge of immigration has been launched. Of course, Korea is not opening the door widely to immigrants. Only the first few steps have been taken.
There has long been a discussion that Korea should accept more immigrants, especially talented and skilled workers, in response to Korea’s aging and shrinking population. As the population decreases, production and demand also declines. Money and people from around the world need to be brought in. By inviting quality capital and a fine workforce, we can ultimately create a more free and prosperous country.
However, the road is long and rough. We have a long way to go until Koreans’ perception and attitude toward foreigners change.
Opponents of immigration say they are worried about public order if more foreigners were to settle in Korea. Their exclusivity is almost a conditioned response.
Some people are appalled as well by the idea of foreign investment. When foreigners make investments in Korea and cash out, Koreans harshly criticize the foreign investors for taking advantage. When foreigners make a donation, whatever the size, after making a good profit, Koreans feel that the foreign donor is looking down on Korea.
Some are also afraid of opening the door because of domestic interests and concerns. The education and medical sectors are especially exclusive. It has been a while since prestigious foreign schools have opened branches in Korea, and the projects have made little progress.
Plans to invite foreign hospitals are not going anywhere. They have not progressed because of the justification of protecting public interests. Discussions for these projects began during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations but are still not concluded. Koreans just don’t feel confident opening these sectors to foreign competitors. The education and medical sectors are essential infrastructures in which talented foreigners should be encouraged to participate. It is a challenge that must be solved to attract “gold collar” immigrants.
The Korean standard, which is quite different from the global norm, is another major obstacle; foreigners realize the difficulty of dealing with Korea. Some foreigners even say “oink” when they experience things that can happen “only in Korea.” Lone Star Funds’ sale of Korea Exchange Bank has not been concluded for years, and the deal is the most notable “oink” case, according to foreign investors.
For sure, Koreans are exclusive when it comes to immigration. We can’t find another country of similar-sized economy to have no major Chinatown. The immigrant Chinese people and their capital have settled all over the world, but they have not been able to penetrate the exclusiveness and close-mindedness of Koreans.
Chinese noodles are popular in Korea, yet the government’s price control policies regulate the noodle price. When roads are expanded, Chinese restaurants are often the first to be demolished. Chinese-Koreans can’t join the Korean military if they don’t have citizenship, and not completing military service makes it harder to get a job.
Moreover, people tend to criticize dual citizenship without considering the circumstances. They condemn people with dual citizenship are opportunists, military service dodgers and tax evaders. In the era of globalization, having multiple nationalities should not be despised. And that attitude discourages overseas Koreans from coming back to the country.
In order to change the direction of immigration policies, a few conditions should be met first. Systematic changes are not enough. For example, Chinese immigrants should be able to make money by selling Chinese noodles. Korea should earn the reputation that Korea is a fun place to live and a safe place to make money. Resident foreigners should proudly say that they are respected in Korea.
The immigration policy cannot be changed by the government alone. The perception of the citizens and the social consensus must accompany that. If the immigration policy is established before we open up our minds, it will only stimulate more discrimination and exclusivity.
*The writer is a senior business writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Nahm Yoon-ho