Korea was designated an “aging society” in 2000, the year in which those aged 65 or older accounted for more than 7 percent of its total population for the first time. The demographic group, which grew to 10.7 percent in 2009, is projected to break though the 14 percent mark in 2018, pushing Korea into an “aged society.”
The transition from an aging society to an aged society, which is accelerating as the birthrate is declining and the life expectancy is increasing, will have far-reaching implications. Most notable among them is the loss of economic vigor. The nation will have little capacity for saving and investing, because a dwindling number of workers will have to feed, clothe and shelter an increasing pool of aged people.
The doubling of the nation’s current fertility rate to the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman would stem the process. But that is easier said than done. All advanced economies have been trying hard to raise the birthrate and avoid the process of changing from an aging society to an aged society. But few have succeeded. One exception is the United States, whose birthrate is raised by the influx of immigrants.
In Korea, immigration is now gaining attention as a potential antidote to a dropping fertility rate ― a development once unthinkable to a nation that has held a misguided xenophobic belief in a “single racial lineage” until recently. Among the advocates, who are yet small in number, is Strategy and Finance Minister Yoon Jeung-hyun, who believes Japan has lost much of its economic prowess because of its anti-immigration policy.
In a recent interview with a vernacular daily, Yoon said that it did not take long before Japan was turned into an aged society because it refused to take in immigrants and open up its labor market to the outside world. If Korea does not want to follow the footsteps of Japan, he said, it will have to create a sub-ministerial level agency for immigration and facilitate the influx of young people of high caliber from abroad.
As he correctly observed, fast aging has been sapping economic and social vitality in Japan, which is a “super-aged society” with those aged 65 or older accounting for 21.2 percent of the total population in 2007. He said Korea needs to learn a lesson from Japan and remove all restrictions on importing foreign labor as long as qualifications are met.
But much needs to be done before such a proactive immigration policy is adopted. Aid for biracial children in school is still inadequate though interracial marriages are gaining traction in rural villages. Nor are rights of foreign workers well protected despite their growing contribution to the Korean economy.
According to one estimate, biracial families will account for 5 percent of the Korean population in 2020, as a growing number of Korean men in rural areas are getting married with women from abroad. Small and mid-size businesses are increasingly relying on migrant workers to do jobs shunned by Koreans. They have 1.2 million foreign workers on their payrolls. The number includes illegal sojourners whose estimate ranges from 180,000 to 200,000.
Civic groups are active in launching campaigns against racial prejudice, helping to protect rights of foreign workers and providing them with legal aid and other types of assistance. But they are not enough. Government agencies will have to engage in this endeavor actively. True, municipalities run various programs to help biracial families. Here again, they need much help from the central government.
While addressing these problems, the central government will do well to do intensive research on immigration policies of other countries. A thorough preparation is needed before the door is opened wider for immigrants. A half-baked policy will do more harm than good.