Multicultural family support policies: enough for successful immigrant integration in South Korea?

Meal at Seoul's Multicultural Family Center_Seoul_KoreaFlickrWritten by Zvezda Vankova, Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Group

A new MIPEX assessment by the Migration Policy Group finds that immigrants in South Korea benefit from ‘slightly favourable’ integration policies. Compared to most other emerging countries of immigration, South Korea has very quickly improved its legal framework on integration.

Where does South Korea stand in the MIPEX scale?


Last Friday, the Migration Policy Group has published new MIPEX data on South Korea that is directly comparable with the 31 MIPEX III countries.  South Korea’s policies score 60 out of the 100-point-MIPEX-scale. With ‘slightly favourable’ policies for promoting immigrant integration, South Korea ranks just below the top 10 MIPEX countries. Compared to neighbouring Japan (38 points), South Korea provides much more favourable conditions for immigrant integration.  However its policies on family reunion, long-term residence, and access to nationality are average compared to most European countries, but slightly more burdensome than in traditional countries of immigration.

New countries of immigration could learn a lot from the South Korean experience

South Korea’s labour market policies come out as generally favourable for integration. Foreign workers in South Korea have the right to Employment Training for Foreign Workers, consisting of introduction to Korean culture, legal rights and obligations. Their family members benefit from Support Centers for Multicultural Families and Open ‘Dasom schools’ for vocational and job training for youths of multicultural background. Even though targeted policies on labour market support have been only recently developed, they are much more favourable than neighbouring Japan, the average EU country, and even some traditional countries of immigration, such as Australia or United States of America.

Pupils from multicultural families benefit from slightly favourable measures at school. They are entitled to receive extra support before entering elementary school, Korean language courses, and counselling materials throughout their education.

As in the majority of established countries of immigration, immigrants in South Korea can vote in local and regional elections. Moreover, they can get support and funding to create immigrants associations, which is favourable for their participation in the political decision making.

However, there is always room for improvement

Unlike in most MIPEX countries, reunited family members in South Korea cannot easily obtain autonomous permits. Moreover, only certain categories of sponsors are entitled to family reunion and long-term residence. Most notably, industrial training visa holders in South Korea cannot apply for family reunion, which is similar to Japan and more restrictive than other MIPEX countries attracting labour migration.

South Korean schools do not use all the opportunities that migrant students bring and have a weak intercultural education approach in school. Migrant pupils cannot learn their own language at school unlike the majority of MIPEX countries.

Even though immigrants in South Korea benefit from slightly favourable electoral rights, they are denied key political liberties, which is far below the standards in most MIPEX countries. They cannot be members of political parties and do not have equal right to run media organisations, as in only a few small and very recent destination countries in Central Europe.

The MIPEX assessment found that South Korean policies are characterised by various restrictions on access to nationality. Immigrants’ children born in South Korea are still not considered Korean nationals at or around their birth (ius soli). Moreover, applicants for Korean nationality must prove that they have a sufficient income, a requirement that has by now been abolished in half the MIPEX countries. Compared to most MIPEX countries, including Japan, naturalised citizens in South Korea are more insecure in their status because it can be withdrawn for proven fraud and threat to public policy/national security after many years.

Potential victims of discrimination face many more obstacles to access justice in South Korea   than in most MIPEX countries. Even though they can benefit from investigation and legal advice provided by the National Human Rights Commission, it has weaker powers than many equality bodies in Europe and traditional countries of immigration.