South Korea

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 Socio-Demographic Indicators  Year  Value
 Human Development Index  2005  0.921a
 Human Development Index, Rank  2005  26a
 Gender-related Development Index  2005  0.910a
 Gender-related Development Index, Rank  2004  26a
 Population Mid-year (In millions)  2008  48.6b
 Rate of Natural Increase (%)  2008  0.5b
 Life Expectancy (Male/Female)  2008  76/82b
Sources: aUNDP (2007); bPopulation Reference Bureau (2008)

Economic Indicators  Year  Value
GDP Growth Rate (%) 2006  5.0c
GDP Per Capita (PPP US$) 2005  22,029a
GNI PPP Per Capita (US$) 2007  24,750b
Unemployment Rate 2006  3.5c
Sources: Sources: aUNDP (2007); bPopulation Reference Bureau (2008); cADB (2007)
South Korea was one of the economies hardly hit by the 1997 financial crisis. It regained its momentum in 1999 due to trade surplus. GDP growth rate indicated that from 6.7 percent in 1998, it grew to 10.9 percent in 1999 and 8.8 percent in 2000. South Korea’s export-led economy recovered in 2001 and 2002 but it slowed down in 2003 to 2005. Real GDP reported at 5 percent in 2006 was driven by domestic demand and export. The labor market also showed signs of strength having an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent. However, the rising labor costs had pushed manufacturers to relocate production overseas or to outsource parts of their production to countries with cheaper labor. The country also faced challenges resulting from a rapidly aging population.
Since the 1990s, South Korea has implemented programs that have implications on its migration experience. These include the following:
  •  Introduction of the Industrial Technical Training Program (ITTP) (1991) – allowing overseas-invested companies to train foreign workers employed by their overseas subsidiaries
  • Small and medium manufacturers without any affiliation abroad permitted to employ trainees (1993)
  • ITTP expanded to include coastal fisheries and construction (1996 and 1997)
  • Introduction of the Work-After-Training Program for Foreigners (1998)
  • Implementation of the Employment Permit System (EPS) (2004)
Migrants, including the undocumented ones, started coming into the country in the mid-1980s. In 2001, the stock of foreign nationals was 229,600 (see Table 1). The training program, launched in 1991, did not fully answer the need for labor and partly became a source of unauthorized migration. The official estimate of irregular migrants soared to 148,048 in 1997. The number dropped to 99,537 in 1998 due to the financial crisis. It rose again to 289,239 as of December 2002.[1] The large presence of undocumented migrant workers is partially attributed to foreign labor policy.
Many migrant workers violate the visa rules. Filipinas with E6 visas who are supposed to work as entertainers in hotels or clubs end up as dancers in bars near the US military bases or as prostitutes in brothels. In 2007, the Ministry of Immigration issued new regulations to restrict the entry of Filipina entertainers into South Korea (AMN, 15 January 2007). Under the new rules, only those who were recruited, screened and approved by Korean promoters could be accredited by the immigration officials and thus, enter the country.
The Employment Permit System (EPS) was implemented in August 2004. In 2007, South Korea signed MoUs with twelve countries including the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh. Nevertheless, the EPS is being blamed for the steady increase in the number of irregular migrants. In June 2006, there were 189,220 irregular workers in the country (AMN, 31 October 2006). Under the EPS, migrant workers are accorded the legal status equivalent to Korean counterparts. In 2007, Korea passed three laws aimed to protect migrant workers from abuse and exploitation. The three laws took effect on 1 July 2007 (AMN, 15 February 2007).
More than one million foreigners were residing in South Korea as of December 2006 (AMN, 28 February 2007). The number of international marriages is on the rise in recent years. In 2006, one out of eight marriages (some 39,000 out of 337,000) was an international marriage and two-thirds of all intermarriages were that of Korean men marrying Asian women (AMN, 30 April 2007). Foreign wives came mostly from Vietnam, China and the Philippines (AMN, 30 September 2006). Meanwhile, the number of foreigners with permanent residency visas had also risen from 10,062 in 2004 to 15,193 as of May 2007 due largely to the surge in international marriages (AMN, 15 July 2007).
There are also North Koreans who have resettled in South Korea. As of the end of September 2006, there were some 9,140 resettlers in the country (AMN, 15 November 2006). Only less than one-tenth of the 1,002 non-Korean asylum seekers had been granted permission to stay as of May 2006 since the country joined the UN refugee convention in 1992 (AMN, 31 October 2006). Only 50 out of some 340 people whose cases had been fully reviewed had been granted refugee status, while 44 others obtained permission to stay on humanitarian grounds.
The government noted a huge decline in emigration figures of Koreans to other countries (AMN, 15 September 2005).[2]However, data from the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs suggest otherwise. In 2001, 27,439 Koreans left the country and in 2003, it rose to 31,228 (AMN, 31 October 2004). In July 2003, there were more than six million overseas Koreans in 151 countries/areas (see Table 2).
South Korea has the largest number of students in the US, accounting for 14.9 percent of all non-immigrant students (AMN, 15 April 2007). As of December 2006, there were 93,728 Korean students in the US. Meanwhile, more than 350,000 Koreans were overstaying their visas abroad in 2004 (AMN, 15 October 2004). As of August 2004, about 182,821 were irregular migrants in the US, 100,000 in Canada, 46,425 in Japan and around 10,000 in the Philippines.
There were also 8,000 Korean prostitutes working in the US in 2006 (AMN, 31 August 2006). The US Department of Justice reported that a large number of sex trafficking victims in the US in that year were Korean women (AMN, 15 June 2006). The Los Angeles Police Department reported that 90 percent of some 70 to 80 women arrested monthly for prostitution in the US are Koreans (AMN, 31 August 2006).
Asian Development Bank (ADB)
2007   “East Asia: Republic of Korea,” In Asian Development Outlook 2007. Available at, accessed on 21 November 2008.
Asian Migration News (AMN) Various Years
Population Reference Bureau
2008   “2008 World Population Data Sheet.” Available at, accessed on 21 November 2008.
Shin-wha Lee’s “The Realities of South Korea’s Migration Policies.” Available at, accessed on 10 November 2007.
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

2007  “Human Development Report 2007/2008.” Available at, accessed on 21 November 2008.

[1]Justice Ministry officials have admitted deleting those over 60 and those less than 17 years of age from estimates of the total number of overstaying foreigners since 1988 to ease the public’s concern over the rising figures (AMN, 15 February 2004). Last June 2003, the number omitted amounted to 70,000 or about 23 percent of the official estimate of 301,700.
[2] In 2001, around 11,584 South Koreans emigrated; 11,966 in 2002 and 10,497 in 2003 (AMN, 30 September 2004).

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