Uniting Koreans overseas and embracing foreigners

2023. 6. 5. 20:20
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A country that embraces and respects diversity can be a global power no one can ignore.

Chang Se-jeong

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo. A new government agency tasked with supporting overseas Koreans launched on Monday. After the Government Organization Act was revised on Feb. 27, the new agency was created under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs also was upgraded under the revision and launched on the same day. The upgrade of the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs and the creation of the new agency for Koreans overseas are significant events in the country’s history.

There is also a growing voice calling a new agency for immigration to be established as soon as possible, going beyond the launch of the agency for overseas Koreans. This is because of a sense of crisis that if the extremely low birthrate is not boosted, the existence of the country itself will be threatened.

Looking back, the history of Korean people’s emigration goes back over 160 years. At the end of the 19th century, a procession of emigrants to Manchuria and Maritime Province of Russia began to escape the Joseon Dynasty’s incompetence, corruption and exploitation. In 1902, the government established an official emigration office and started exporting manpower to Hawaii in the United States as well as Mexico and sugarcane farms in Cuba.

After the foundation of the Korean government, the Emigration Act was legislated in 1962, fueling overseas emigration in the modern sense. As a result, the number of Koreans living in 179 countries around the world increased to 7.32 million as of the end of 2021. In other words, the Korean diaspora is widespread in more countries than Jews and the Chinese. Even after a national flag is taken down in Seoul at sunset, a national flag is still hoisted on the other side of the globe.

In tandem with Koreans’ emigration to other countries, the influx of foreigners is also progressing continuously. There was a marriage boom between men in rural areas with women from Southeast Asia. Recently, international marriages between Koreans and foreigners are on the rise due to the growing influence of the Korean wave such as BTS’s popularity. According to the Ministry of Justice, over 2.24 million foreigners were staying in Korea late last year. As the various travel bans and social distancing measures from COVID-19 are lifted, more foreign tourists are coming to enjoy the charm of Korea, a cultural powerhouse. Now, the members of the Korean community became more colorful in terms of race and its diversity has been strengthened.

At this point, it is an urgent task of the times to launch a new agency in charge of immigration, which will play its role as a melting pot for the people of Korea and be a part of two reliable axes along with the agency for overseas Koreans. When the two agencies are strategically organized and produce synergy, the vision of making Korea a G5 country by sharing peace and prosperity to the world will not be a mere dream. In the past, western powers built colonies all around the world by invading weaker countries in pursuit of gains, but Korea could serve as a model for spreading and sharing economic prosperity, cultural abundance and peace.

To realize this grand vision, the new agency for overseas Koreans should not be satisfied with simply creating a new office with 151 public servants but must prove its reason for existence with substance. First, it must closely study any potential problems because the Foreign Ministry will continue to be in charge of protecting overseas Koreans while the agency’s head will be in charge of policy governing Koreans living overseas.

Second, even after the launch of the new agency, overseas Koreans who are living in Korea — such as Chinese-Koreans — will still be under the management of the Ministry of Justice. It is necessary to check whether the division of roles between the new agency and the justice ministry is appropriate. Third, as the Overseas Koreans Policy Committee, which used to be headed by the prime minister, will be headed by the foreign minister, we must pay attention to the concerns that the committee would become irrelevant.

Unfortunately, a plan to establish a new agency in charge of immigration has yet to take the first step. Rep. Lee Myoung-su and Rep. Kim Hyung-dong each sponsored a bill last year to amend the Government Organization Act to establish the agency, but no progress has been made. The OECD classifies a country as a “multicultural/multiracial country” if the ratio of foreigners to the total population exceeds 5 percent. Considering Korea’s total population of 51.41 million last year, the ratio exceeded 4.3 percent already — and approaches 15 percent in some regions. We must not delay creating a command center to oversee policy on foreigners and minimize expected social and cultural conflicts. We hope that Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon shows some driving force on this matter.

In Korean society, the pre-modern discourse of “only Korean people” is widespread. It is often politically abused. Now, we must escape from the illusion that we are a country of single ethnic group — and should evolve into more open internationalism. We must open doors widely to the foreigners who comply with the Constitution and have certain qualifications. A country that embraces and respects diversity can be a global power no one can ignore. The key to peace and prosperity is up to our next move.

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