A forward-looking immigration policy

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A forward-looking immigration policy

President Yoon Suk-yeol called for a thorough revisit to the policy entirely focusing on promoting births to address the demographic challenges Korea faces. According to Statistics Korea, the total fertility rate of the country stopped at 0.81 with the number of newborns tallied at record-low of 260,000 last year. The results are the lowest among 38 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The government has been revising the basic outline on low birth and aging society every five years since the basic plan was drawn up in 2005. It has spent a total 400 trillion won ($281 billion), and yet the birth rate has been sinking to new record lows.

The fertility rate is expected to slip to 0.68 next year. At this rate, the warning about Korea turning into a “collective suicide society” by International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde during her visit to Seoul in October 2017 could come true. In its long-term public finance report last year, the OECD projected that Korea’s potential per capita GDP growth could sink to zero percent from 2030 due to decreased productivity from low birth and fast aging. In that case, Korea could become a bottom economy with no growth among the OECD members.

The working population aged from 15 to 64 has already been thinning. The figure came to 36,944,000 last year, or 71.4 percent of total population, down 677,000 in 2016. Birthrates have been dropping due to expensive childcare and housing and job insecurity. The government must study if support for birth, child care and day care has been adequate. In France and Sweden, where the birth rate exceeds 1.5, the child support ratio accounts for around 3 percent of their GDP, higher than 1 percent level in Korea.

Immigration policy must be changed proactively. Foreign input can be a substitute for thinning working population. The Netherlands which had been a colony of Spain surfaced as a maritime power in the 17th century by embracing immigrants seeking freedom in religion and thoughts. Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon proposed to set up an immigration administration. The justice ministry has held seminars on the agenda twice and motioned a bill proposing the establishment of the body to the National Assembly.

The idea has been floated since the Kim Dae-jung administration, but it has not come to fruition due to concerns over job losses for Koreans. Korea is short not just on skilled industrial workers, but also in the farming and fisheries sectors. The government must study which fields and how much manpower is needed, and from which countries it should accept immigrants. Thorough examination is necessary to prevent social conflict. It must seek public consensus to create a nation that can harmonize with immigrants.
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