The South Korean Governments' "Program to Alleviate the Hardships of Undocumented Overseas Koreans" and South Korea's Racial Hierarchy: It's time to start breaking it downPosted in articles, statements on March 25th, 2011 by pssp – 67 Comments
25 March 2011
On 3 January 2011, the South Korean Immigration Service, an agency of the Ministry of Justice, began an unprecedented program for the 'alleviation of hardships' for undocumented overseas Koreans residing in South Korea. Under this program, which will go on until the end of June, a large portion of the undocumented overseas Koreans ineligible for F-4 (overseas Korean visa) visas now living in South Korea, the vast majority of whom are Chinese Korean, are allowed to apply for and receive a D-4 visa (general trainee visa). After completing a 9-month occupational skills training program conducted by the Overseas Korean Technical Training Foundation, these individuals will be permitted to change their visa status to H-2 (working visa) and thus be allowed to work legally in one of the 36 industries now open to overseas Koreans under the South Korea's Guest Work System for a period of 4 years and 10 months. The primary targets of this program are Chinese and other overseas Koreans who have resided in South Korea for over 10 years along with their spouses and direct decedents. In addition, undocumented overseas Koreans who have spouses who have obtained citizenship or permanent residency, those who require treatment for the aftereffects of industrial accidents, those who are married to Korean citizens and those who have become undocumented after entering Korea on H-2 visas are also eligible. Overseas Koreans who were born before 1 October 1949 will not have to participate in the training program and will be granted F-4 visas, giving them a status near permanent residence that is now granted to overseas Koreans from Japan and the United States under the Law on Overseas Koreans. In reality, the vast majority of those who will benefit from this program fall in the first category. The Ministry of Justice has estimated that the program applies to roughly 6,000 Chinese and other overseas Koreans. Migrant-related NGOs, on the other hand, say the number could be as high as 20,000.
Reaction to this program has been mixed. Understandably, the Chinese Korean community and some of the NGOs serving it have welcomed the measure. Other forces in the migrant workers movement, however, have been highly critically. These groups (which include the Joint Committee with Migrants in Korea (JCMK) and the Alliance for Migrants Equality and Human Rights) have called the program racially discriminatory because it is not open to migrants of not of Korean decent. JCMK collecting over 500 petitions from non-Korean migrant workers, both those who have resided in South Korea for over 10 years and those who have not, and submitted them to the National Human Rights Commission on March 21, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. On the same day JCMK and the Alliance for Migrant's Equality and Human Rights held a press conference in front of the Human Rights Commission to call attention to the discriminatory nature of the program and racism in South Korean society, and demand legalization for all migrant workers. The press conference statement presented this day, which was written by JCMK, also criticized the legalization program for effectively concealing the fact that while the National Assembly approved the application of the Law on Overseas Koreans to Koreans from China and countries in the former Soviet Bloc in 2004, this measure has not been implemented. It called on the government to replace the 'deceitful' legalization program with guarantee of freedom of travel, employment and residence in accordance with the Law on Overseas Koreans for these overseas Koreans.
That migrant rights groups used March 21 to call attention to the discriminatory nature of the legalization program is commendable. If the South Korean movement is gong to take on racism as a serious issue, however, we need a more nuanced understanding of the implications of the legalization program and how it fits into the government's overall policy towards overseas Koreans and other migrant workers in South Korea. The passing of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination seems like a good occasion to start building this analysis.
Let's begin by looking at the interests and intentions behind the Program to Alleviate the Hardships of Overseas Koreans. The Ministry of Justice says the program is being implemented out of humanitarian consideration for the difficulties faced by (non-F-4) overseas Koreans due to their lowly economic and social position. We can guess with fair certainty that this is not the whole story. On the one hand, the program is a response to lobbying efforts by the NGOs serving Chinese Koreans. While it does not go far enough to meet their ultimate demand - the application of the Law on Overseas Koreans - the program is likely to placate them to a certain degree. In addition, the program is a means to address labor shortages in particular industries shunned by native workers with a cheap labor force that is more highly trained and socially assimilated than temporary non-Korean migrants who enter Korea under the Employment Permit System (EPS). Through the required training program and the granting of work permits, the government will be able to channel undocumented overseas Koreans, who may now be employed in any number of occupations, into specific industries where the need for labor is high while keeping them out of industries were native workers are facing high unemployment rates, most notably construction.
The Guest Work System, a program exclusively open to overseas Koreans, was first introduced in 2007. It allows for a 4 year 10 month period of residence. For the first group of workers who entered South Korea through this system, this residence period will be up in 2012. Since it is likely that many of these workers will remain in South Korea in an undocumented status, the government faces a potential social crisis next year. We can guess, therefore, that the current legalization program is also a means to test out the effectiveness of extending expired H-2 visas as a method for averting a rapid rise in the undocumented population.
The 'hardship alleviation' program comes in the wake of an announcement by the Ministry of Employment and Labor of an increase in the quota for new E-9 (EPS) visas in consideration of the vast numbers of undocumented migrant workers that have been deported and improvement in the economy. The quota has been increased by 14,000 over last year to a total of 48,000 for 2011 with the possibility of further increases later in the year. At the same time the Ministry has announced its plan to maintain the target number of H-2 visa holders in South Korea at the same level as last year (303,000), meaning that few new over Korean migrants will be permitted to enter South Korea under the Guest Work System this year. Given the implementation of the legalization program, it appears most new H-2 visas will go to long-term residents, not new arrivals. Clearly, the government envisions different roles for overseas Korean migrants and migrants of non-Korean decent. The latter are to be the most short-term, most expendable workers, with the more seasoned EPS workers pushed out at the same time as a never-ending supply of new recruits is brought in. The former, on the other hand, will be a well-trained, more assimilated and more stable, but still cheap, labor force.
The 'hardship alleviation' represents clear partiality towards 'fellow countrymen'. It, along with the recent granting of voting rights to overseas nationals and the introduction of a written pledge of allegiance to South Korea's liberal democratic system in naturalization procedures, is part of a trend towards strengthened nationalism in South Korean policymaking. Nationalist favoritism towards overseas Koreans, however, has a strong utilitarian element and is applied differentially based on wealth. The legalization program currently under way still falls short of granting F-4 visas to the majority of Chinese Koreans. The ultimate result of the benefits it grants will be to further solidify Chinese Koreans' position as second-class citizens who exist somewhere between migrant workers of non-Korean decent and Korean citizens (and overseas Koreans from developed nations) in the social hierarchy. This positioning is accompanied by an ambiguous racialization: Although Chinese Koreans are referred to as 'countrymen' [dongpo] in policy discourse and the media, overseas Koreans from China and the former Soviet bloc are still maintained as a temporary workforce tied to particular industries and are, as such, a target of government management and regulation. These overseas Koreans are still 'others' who have to register as aliens, while Japanese and American Koreans are allowed to simply notify the government of their residence in South Korea. In the workplace and in daily life as well, Chinese Koreans are treated as 'other's, lumped together with other 'Asian' migrants. (In South Korean racial discourse, native Koreans are generally excluded from the category 'Asian', which is used to refer to people from South and Central Asian countries.)
The government's utilitarian nationalism and discriminatory policies are contributing to the institutionalization of a racialized hierarchy in South Korean society where Korean citizens are at the top, Chinese Koreans in the middle and migrants of non-Korean descent from 'Asian' countries at the bottom. This hierarchy is part of a system of social control that operates through a mixture of appeasement and oppression. It also deepens divisions among the working class that keep workers from coming together to demand their rights. Chinese Koreans are being placated and incorporated as countrymen, or at least good 'migrants' who are deserving of humanitarian relief yet who will always be second-class citizens and the objects of regulation. Non-Korean migrants, on the other hand, remain outsiders and the most expendable form of labor, controlled under the EPS system or demonized as 'illegal' and 'criminal'. Meanwhile, native Korean workers are encouraged to see social belonging, political rights and employment as their unique birthrights and blame migrants, including and sometimes especially Chinese Koreans, for taking their jobs or creating downward pressure on working conditions. Being positioned at different places in this racial hierarchy makes it different for workers of different backgrounds to see their collective interests in fighting labor exploitation and the racism that facilitates it.
The 'hardship alleviation' program will be beneficial to some Chinese Koreans in the immediate. In the end, however, the racialize hierarchy it is helping to institutionalize is good neither for Chinese Korean workers nor for non-Korean migrant workers nor for native Korean workers. Accordingly, breaking this hierarchy down must be a goal and a struggle shared by all workers, regardless of their nationality and their position within it. The labor movement needs to be an anti-racist labor movement, one that finds ways to empower racialized groups that are systematically disempowered in South Korean society and the labor movement itself, at the same time as it strives to build unity between migrant and native workers. The migrant rights movement needs an analysis of racial capitalist and the place of different groups of migrants within it.
Together, we need to formulate demands that disrupt this racial hierarchy rather than perpetuating it. In this respect, the demand for application of the Law on Overseas Koreans to Chinese and Koreans from Soviet bloc countries is not helpful. While respecting the fact that these overseas Koreans are discriminated against with respect to Korean Japanese and Korean Americans, we must replace it with a call for pathways to long-term residence and political participation that applies equally to all migrants. The migrant rights and labor movements must join forces to develop concrete strategies for organizing Chinese Koreans, non-Korean migrants and native Koreans together to demand full legalization, equal labor rights, and ultimately equal citizenship rights for all.