News / Asia

Ethnic Koreans from China Hit by Seoul Visa Policy

Kim Young-hwang has been working construction jobs in South Korea for about eight years (VOA/Jason Strother). Kim Young-hwang has been working construction jobs in South Korea for about eight years (VOA/Jason Strother).
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Kim Young-hwang has been working construction jobs in South Korea for about eight years (VOA/Jason Strother).
Kim Young-hwang has been working construction jobs in South Korea for about eight years (VOA/Jason Strother).
Jason Strother
SEOUL - In recent decades, South Korea has relied on migrant labor to help keep its economy running.  The majority of those foreign workers are from northeast China, but ethnically Korean. This year, about 70,000 of these workers will have to return home because their visas are set to expire - a policy that many claim is unfair.

Kim Young-hwang has been working construction jobs in South Korea for about eight years.  The 35-year-old is an ethnic Korean from Harbin, China and sends money back home to support his family.

He says life in South Korea is pretty good. The money he earns here is a lot more than he could earn in China.

But one thing about life here does not sit well with Kim.

He says ethnic Koreans from China, known as Joseonjok, are not treated equally compared with Koreans from other countries.

Kim says ethnic Koreans from wealthy nations like Japan or the U.S., are treated much better.  They can travel back and forth as they like. He says Chinese-Koreans are treated like foreigners from a poor country.

Kim says what is most unfair are the types of visas Joseonjok receive compared to other ethnic Koreans.

Korean-Americans for example are granted working visas that are renewable every few years.  But Koreans from China are only allowed to stay in South Korea for five years then must return home. 

This year, the visas of 70,000 Joseonjok are set to expire.

And many do not want to go back to China, says Kim Sook-ja, who runs an advocacy group for other Joseonjok like herself.  She says it will be very hard for them to make a living there.

She says, most of the Joseonjok here already sold their homes or businesses back in China and have no work to do there.  And based on the current exchange rate, Korean money they saved just does not go as far as it used to in China.    

Some analysts say that while South Korea’s immigration policy might seem unfair to Joseonjok, it is an economic necessity.

"There is the possibility of these Joseonjok taking jobs from many Korean people.  There are much more job opportunities for the Joseonjok especially in unskilled jobs," says Park Young-bum, who lectures at Seoul’s Hansung University.

He says there is the possibility that they will take jobs away from Korean people. He says there are more opportunities for the Joseonjok, especially in unskilled jobs.

Park adds that under South Korean immigration law, foreigners that stay for five years are able to apply for citizenship.  And that could cause public resentment.

Joseonjok already have a tarnished reputation after one immigrant was involved in a high profile murder of a South Korean woman earlier this year.

Advocate Kim Sook-ja says the incident has caused a backlash against the entire community.

"It is a shame that one person can ruin the image for 600,000 other Joseonjok," Kim says. "Many South Koreans have since looked down on us as a group. They do not consider us as Koreans like them."

She says her organization is trying to help bridge the gap between South Koreans and Joseonjok.

Kim Young-hwang says he too has felt more discrimination in recent months. But it has not effected his desire to stay in South Korea. His visa expires in August and he is now studying for a test that could allow him to switch to a more permanent visa if he passes.

Kim says he is really worried about going back to China. He has gotten used to living here and it will be difficult to find a job.

Kim says if he does have to go back, then he will just apply for another 5-year work visa and do it all over again.

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