While walking the streets of Seoul, South Korea’s energetic capital, it was fascinating to see the contrast between its centuries-old palaces set against a backdrop of modern high-rise buildings.  More than just a picturesque view, this was telling of the synergy that results when tradition is met with innovation. 

During our trip to South Korea earlier in the year for our Immigration in Focus Seminar, which we co-hosted with Kim, Chang & Lee, we had the privilege of meeting with several senior officers from the Foreign Investor Support Office (FISO) of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA). 

It was interesting to hear from KOTRA about how immigration policy will fit in with the Korean government’s vision for society. While remaining deeply traditional, South Korea is also known for innovation, having been a pioneer in so many respects.  It is no surprise then to find this degree of foresight adopted in its immigration policy.  

Like other developed nations, South Korea finds itself with a low-birth and aging population and views a responsible immigration policy as vital to its future. It is now tackling this demographic disruptor - alongside the move towards the fourth Industrial Revolution - by welcoming emerging industries and re-focusing on the foreign talent who it is issuing work visas to. 

For one thing, the government has relaxed the requirements for startup companies, any one of which could be the next major player to challenge existing norms. It has also identified novel jobs that the new economy has created and has even established additional job categories (such as “robot engineering technicians” and “e-commerce support specialists”) under the E-7 (Particular Occupation) Visa. These are job categories that may not have even existed just 10 years ago but which the industry sectors have now deemed necessary to recruit foreign talent for.  Further, Korea has also resolved to expand quotas for skilled technical workers. 

On top of all of this, it seems that the government may also be trying to encourage lengthier settlement of highly skilled workers, by streamlining the D-8 (Corporate Investment) work visa and also encouraging such visa holders to eventually obtain resident status.  By taking these steps, Korea appears to be advancing national competitiveness and securing a foothold in this emerging new order.

South Korea, which already had one of the more stable and reliable immigration systems in place, has its eye on the future. It has recognized the disruptors in the immigration space and has come up with a plan to tackle - and even embrace - them.  As the saying goes, “the only way out is through.”  Through the lens of shifting immigration policies, it would be interesting to see what lies beyond the horizon for the Land of the Morning Calm.