Monday, February 7, 2022

My Mistake


In 2010, over 10% of all South Korean marriages had at least one immigrant partner, and the trend seemed ever upward. It wasn't. The authorities responded by making immigration a lot harder for the foreign wives of lonely South Korean men (Statistics Korea 2021, p. 1)



In 2011, Faustino John Lim (2011) wrote about the changing demographics of South Korea, particularly its rural areas, and predicted that by 2020 a third of all children in the country would be born to non-Korean mothers.


Currently, a third of all marriages occurring in South Korea's rural areas involve migrant wives—mostly from China and Southeast Asia—who have been matched with South Korean men. An increasing gender imbalance tilting toward males ensures this phenomenon will continue, with jarring implications for the myth of Korean ethnic homogeneity.


In June, the government announced that the number of children with at least one parent of non-Korean heritage reached 150,000 this year, a number that has increased fourfold over the last four years. They are expected to number over 1.6 million by 2020, with a third of all children born that year the offspring of international unions.


I quoted that prediction in several of my posts, including one that appeared only three years ago. How correct was that prediction? And how correct was I in accepting it?


In 2020, 6% of Korea's live births had at least one immigrant parent. Of those births, 67% were to a Korean father and a non-Korean mother, 13.2% to the reverse, and 19.9% to naturalized residents (Statistics Korea 2021, p. 4).


There's a big difference between 6% and one third. Was that forecast unrealistic in 2011? Or did something happen afterwards to throw it off? I would say the latter. Specifically, it was thrown off by three factors:


·         The year 2011 saw the beginning of a crackdown on visa applications for mail-order wives. "International marriages" fell from a high of 35,100 in 2010 to a low of 21,700 in 2016 (Statistics Korea 2021, p. 1). The authorities seem to have initially enforced the existing visa requirements with more rigour. Then, in 2014, the government introduced several new rules: a Korean language requirement for the foreign spouse; income and housing requirements for the Korean sponsor; a 5-year ban on Koreans sponsoring a second foreign spouse (because of divorce); and a 3-year ban on naturalized immigrants sponsoring a foreign spouse (An 2019, pp. 102-103).


·         The fertility of native-born Koreans has declined, but so has the fertility of immigrant mothers. There has been a decrease in total live births to immigrants since 2012, despite an increase in the total immigrant population (Statistics Korea 2021, p. 4).


·         The COVID-19 pandemic has depressed both immigration and fertility.  Immigrant marriages fell from 24,700 in 2019 to 16,200 in 2020. Births to immigrants fell from 17,900 in 2019 to 16,400 in 2020.


The first factor is called the "observer effect." You cannot make an observation without affecting the thing you observe, perhaps to the point of invalidating your observation. When, in 2011, Faustino Lim predicted that a third of all births would be born to non-Korean mothers by 2020, the authorities responded by making immigration a lot harder for foreign women.


The other two factors have been noted elsewhere. In the United States, fertility has fallen among immigrant groups, particularly Hispanics. We are seeing, in fact, a dramatic drop in fertility throughout the world, the notable exceptions being much of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Muslim world. Finally, the pandemic has reduced both fertility and international migration. Things may return to normal once it ends. Or maybe not. The pandemic may be acting as an accelerant of existing social trends (Frost 2020).


Does this mean that South Korea has dodged the bullet of demographic replacement? It depends on what happens to fertility and immigration once the pandemic is over. In 2020, the country's fertility rate fell to 0.84 children per woman, the lowest in the world (Reuters 2021). At that level, it doesn't take much to cause rapid demographic change. Such change could happen especially fast if citizenship is given to the growing population of legal and illegal migrants:


The country currently allows migrants to fill labor shortages, but soon it may have to allow greater immigration to help augment its aging, shrinking population.


... Chung Ki-seon, a migration expert at Seoul National University, says that South Korea is taking in migrants because it needs to supplement its agriculture, fishing, construction and manufacturing workforce, and not to address a demographic imbalance.

She predicts that situation will change over the next decade, as the country reaches a turning point that will necessitate a policy shift.


"The approximate age of the [Korean] people working the fields right now is over 70," she says. "And once they reach 75 or older, it will be hard for them to remain in the workforce."


... The pandemic cut off the inflow of thousands of legally employed migrant workers from Southeast Asia and countries as far away as Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Chung says 5,000 new seasonal laborers were supposed to come into the country to work for 90 days or less last year. But none of them could enter.


As a result, Chung says, "the farms rely mostly on illegal immigrants, who fill 80% to 90% of that shortage." There are more than 392,000 undocumented workers in the country. (Kuhn 2021)




An, J. (2019). Marriage Migration and National Boundary-Making: A Comparative Study of Marriage Migration in South Korea and Canada. PhD dissertation, Department of Sociology, Carleton University, Ottawa


Frost, P. (2019). South Korea at the crossroads. Evo and Proud, August 20  


Frost, P. (2020). An Accelerant of Social Change? The Spanish Flu of 1918-19. International Political Anthropology Journal 13(2): 123-133.


Frost, P. (2021). Damunwha in South Korea: A case study of divergences in cognition and behavior. Advances in Anthropology 11(2): 153-162.  


Kuhn, A. (2021). As Workforce Ages, South Korea Increasingly Depends on Migrant Labor. NPR


Lim, T. (2011). Korea's multicultural future? The Diplomat, July 20   


Reuters (2021). South Korea's fertility rate falls to lowest in the world.


Statistics Korea. (2021). Vital Statistics of Immigrants in 2020.  


Sean said...

"The approximate age of the [Korean] people working the fields right now is over 70," she says. "And once they reach 75 or older, it will be hard for them to remain in the workforce."

Surely there could be investment in automation and organisational innovations that would make agriculture maintain farmers' output with less people; the population of South Korea is going to decline so why do they need to not reduce homeland food production? Why does South Korea need to maintain its current number of people working in agriculture to produce food? It is not an autarkic state, it's a world trading country subtly playing off the West and China so as to be a defence freerider while being able to export to the US on favourable terms. Similarly, North Korea is looked after by China although Xi gets a good deal in Kim as a sockpuppet to cause trouble for anyone like Trump who gets in the White House and threatens the access to the American market of China. The secret ICBM base in North Korea that is in the news is only 16 miles from the border with China.

Anonymous said...

Always worth comparing projections against actual data as it becomes available.

Anonymous said...

It's great to see you blogging again, Peter.

I was wondering if you might have any insight or thoughts into a potential Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Unknown said...

Hi Sean,

The Japanese are hoping that robotization will reduce the need for immigrant labor, and the same is true for the Chinese and the South Koreans. But there are globalist and nationalist factions in all three countries. The American experience has been that immigrant labor discourages innovation, particularly in robotization. There are also externalities, notably health costs and pensions, and those costs are usually paid for by the taxpayer, and not by agribusiness.


I'm worried about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. People sometimes ask me if I'm a nationalist, and this is one of the many cases where I have to say "no!" It's grimly ironic that the West is instrumentalizing Ukrainian nationalism (including neo-nazism) to achieve globalist ends.

Sean said...

Peter, good points!

MEARSHEIMER:"My argument is [the United States] is playing a losing hand. And the reason you're playing a losing hand is because this is a competition between economic considerations and security considerations. The basic mindset of people in the West is that you can punish the Russians economically and they'll throw their hands up.

My argument is: When security considerations are at stake. When core strategic interests are at stake, and there's no question, ladies and gentlemen, in Russia's case this is a core strategic interest. Countries will suffer enormously before they throw their hands up. So you can inflict a lot of pain on the Russians and they're not going to quit."

And they're not going to quit because Ukraine matters to them."