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South Korea’s Migrant Policies and Democratic Challenges After the Candlelight Movement
Region: Asia
Theme: Domestic
Location: Korea, South
Published October 18, 2019
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South Korea’s deliberate liberalization of migration controls has facilitated the entry and stay of new types of residents from various ethnic, political, and national backgrounds. With this demographic shift comes new questions for the South Korean polity in terms of its expectations of rights and duties of residents in the country. South Korean citizenship has, until the past decade, been largely premised on belonging in two fields: shared ethnic descent and contributions to the nationstate development project. However, new residents, who are ethnically diverse and who contribute to the national project, are seeking greater rights and social welfare provisions just as Korean nationals are ambivalent about their inclusion in the democratic body politic. As a result, the migrant policies bring into sharper relief the contours of democratic discourse in South Korea today. Drawing from six months of immersive fieldwork conducted in South Korea, this paper analyzes the relevance of migrant rights and expectations in understanding the broader democratic challenges in South Korea. Examining the government’s institutionalization of certain migrant “categories”—namely, temporary labor migrants and so-called “marriage migrants”— the paper argues that South Korea’s treatment of diversity and the protection of individual rights should be analyzed more deeply to understand current trends in South Korean civil society and democracy.

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