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Is multiculturalism on the rise in East Asia?

Japan is probably the most-cited example of a country experiencing a rapid population decline. Previous Future Citizen Institute episodes and infographics were therefore concerned with Japan’s decision to slowly open up to immigration and possibly tolerate dual citizenship. A collaborative research project conducted by the universities of Leiden, Toronto and Vienna now shows that the trend that we identified in Japan can also be witnessed in South Korea, which is experiencing a similar demographic problem. The researchers asked South Koreans about their attitudes towards and preferences regarding immigrants and diversity, with a primary focus on attitudes towards people of the same ethnicity (in particular North Korean defector-migrants and Korean-Chinese immigrants) versus non-ethnic Korean groups.

The backdrop to the research is the South Korean government’s active promotion of multiculturalism, which deviates strongly from the traditional idea of South Korea being an ethnically homogenous country. Over the last decade, the number of immigrants consequently doubled to 2,2 million on a total population of 55 million people. While the research shows that South Koreans prefer immigration by ethnic-Korean migrants, 57,2% supports the multicultural society, compared to 28,7% which prefers an ethnically homogenous population.

Another noteworthy finding is that while 13,8% would support stopping immigration flows for all immigrants, this goes down to 11,9% when asked about non-ethnic Korean immigrants and up to 21,2% in respect of Chinese-Korean migrants. The report does not speculate as to the reason for the resistance to Chinese immigration, but only concludes that “ethnic preference does not extend to Chinese Koreans, who are the least favored group amongst all groups presented to respondents, including non-Koreans. This indicates that co-ethnic preference is just one factor among many that may influence attitudes. South Korean views of immigration are likely conditioned to some extent by ethnic factors, but these are not the only conditioning factors; indeed, they are not even the most important”.

The researchers also interviewed North Korean defectors, who only represent 1,45% (or 32,000 people) of the total immigration population of 2,2 million people. This produced some interesting results in that the respondents were asked about matters with which they did not have any direct experience. While the South Koreans, with their limited and only very recent experience with immigration, “have tolerance for new groups even though they associate those groups with increasing crime and limited positive effects in the wider economy”, which the researchers qualify as “a puzzling finding”, 36% of the North Korean defectors support the multicultural society despite not having any prior experience with different ethnic groups coexisting alongside each other. Other findings, such as the North Korean defector-migrants’ remarkably high level of support for and pride in South Korean state identity and the achievements of the South Korean people in a wide range of fields, makes the researchers particularly hopeful about the successful integration of North Koreans in a putative future unification scenario.

The South Korean case is also a good illustration of the interaction between different grounds of acquisition of citizenship, namely automatic acquisition, facilitated naturalisation for spouses, and re-acquisition of citizenship by former citizens. While the frequency of naturalisation in the 1990s was very low in Korea, Chulwoo Lee explains that this was because

the foreign spouses of Korean men did not need naturalisation until early 1998 because they automatically acquired citizenship upon marriage. In that period, ethnic return migration from the former communist countries was restricted. Return migrants from China had greater recourse to reinstatement of nationality than naturalisation because the first-generation Korean Chinese were treated as having once held [South Korean] citizenship. Since 2001, naturalisation cases have increasingly outnumbered cases of reinstatement of nationality.

In practice, this meant that naturalisation numbers which did not exceed a hundred per year until the mid-1990s have increased to over 10,000 per year in the last decade.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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