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New Immigration Policy Could Be The Solution To South Korea's Population Decline

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

South Korea's population began to shrink for the first time last year. It's an omen of things to come. Like people in other developed economies, South Koreans are having fewer babies and their society is aging. One solution would be to allow greater immigration, and that would require changes in how non-Korean workers are seen and treated, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The farmland around the city of Miryang in the country's southeast is farmed mostly by migrants. Local youths aren't interested in these jobs. Activist Kim Yi-chan is going from farm to farm to help some Cambodian migrants. At his first stop, worker Kuong Srey Leab accuses her employers of deceiving her.

KUONG SREY LEAB: (Through interpreter) I work hard, and it's painful. But I get paid very little. I've also worked for my employer's son and his friends and others whose names I don't even know.

(CROSSTALK)

KUHN: The farmers do not welcome Kim. Yoon Sang-jin represents a group of farmers who employ migrants. He accuses the activists of coming here to stir up trouble.

YOON SANG-JIN: (Through interpreter) When labor authorities came to inspect, the workers didn't say they had to do any unpaid work. But they team up with these activists to take advantage of the farmers' difficulties and benefit themselves. We haven't done them any harm.

KUHN: Kuong gets on a bus with the activists who will try to help her find another job. The bus then heads to another farm, where another Cambodian migrant, Khen Srey Nuon, has been living in a shed inside a greenhouse. The greenhouse is piled high with boxes of the peppers and strawberries that she harvests and packs.

KHEN SREY NUON: (Through interpreter) The water here freezes in winter. My room is also usually freezing. It's difficult to live in. My employer gives me drinking water, but it's not so clean, so I have to buy my own.

KUHN: Khen also decides to quit her job and leave with the activists. She puts a few belongings in a suitcase and rolls it to the bus. After we visit a third farm and collect a third migrant, I begin to understand what activist Kim Yi-chan is trying to do.

It seems to me you're doing three things today. You're helping these workers to get out of a difficult spot and move on. You're letting the farmers, the employers know that these people have rights and they can't treat them any way they want. And finally, you're calling attention to this problem. Is that basically correct?

KIM YI-CHAN: Yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: Activists and migrants hold up banners and signs and hold a protest to demand their rights on a road running between rows of greenhouses. In December, a Cambodian migrant worker was found dead in the greenhouse where she was living. After that, the government stopped issuing employment permits to employers who housed workers in greenhouses. But Kim Yi-chan says South Korea's system remains stacked against the migrants and is basically a form of modern-day slavery.

KIM: (Through interpreter) Working conditions are bad, and employers are violating the law. But they still managed to hang on to their workers. The laborers bite the bullet and stay on because they are worried and threatened that if they leave, they can become illegal immigrants.

KUHN: Chung Ki-seon is a migration expert at Seoul National University. She says that demographic trends show that South Korea is reaching a critical point.

CHUNG KI-SEON: (Through interpreter) The approximate age of the people working in the fields right now is over 70. And once they reach 75 or older, it will be hard for them to remain in the workforce.

KUHN: It's very difficult for migrants working in South Korea to become citizens. Chung argues that the government knows public opinion is against allowing mass immigration, but demographics leave it no choice. So they're allowing immigration but not calling it that.

CHUNG: (Through interpreter) Although we call it a foreigner policy, it has all the ingredients of an immigration policy. The foreigner policy contains measures to integrate and recognize immigrants as members of the society, either as citizens or as permanent residents.

KUHN: Chung says that the pandemic has made South Koreans more aware of the harsh conditions for migrants who toil on their farms but are still largely invisible to them.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Miryang, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.