South Korea to launch talent-based immigration system

Author: Jens Kastner | Date: 8 Feb 2017

More high-skilled workers needed, but recruiters say restrictions on foreigners are holding the country back

South Korea’s deputy prime minister Yoo Il-ho has confirmed the government is drafting a talent-based immigration system.
According to Yoo, the Office for Government Policy Coordination (OPC) has created a task force to counter the country’s demographic changes, and plans to produce mid- and long-term immigration policies in the first half of the year.
Although South Korea’s population is the fastest-ageing among OECD countries, the current immigration system is still heavily focused on low-skilled workers.
“It would be easy to attract the so-called ‘excellent human resources’ to live in South Korea and become our citizens by making some regulatory improvements,” Yoo told broadcaster KBS.
While HR professionals in the country doubt that change will come fast, given that President Park Geun-hye is battling impeachment over cronyism allegations, they are positive that the introduction of a talent-based immigration system is badly needed, as current requirements for hiring foreign white-collar professionals are overly restrictive.
According to Duncan Harrison, country manager of recruitment consultancy Robert Walters Korea, the most pressing issue is scrapping the quota for foreign workers.
“We are a mid-sized international company with 30 Korean employees and four foreigners and would like to hire more foreigners,” Harrison said.
“But nine in 10 employees must be Korean, meaning it is virtually impossible to get this through even if we have already succeeded in convincing the authorities that there is no available Korean applicant with that particular skill.”
Harrison worked in Japan in his previous position and believes that Japan has now become far more welcoming to foreign talent than South Korea. He noted that it is not only restrictive policies that keep talent away from Korea but also the “top-down” business culture, where only those at the very top of the organisation’s hierarchy have an influence on how the company is run.
“I have met plenty of foreigners who came here on great packages but leave after a few months because they could not handle the business culture,” Harrison said.
The lack of foreign talent had been costing Korean industrial sectors dearly even before the demographic ills are fully felt, says Elias Peterle, Seoul-based representative director of management and HR consultancy Nowak & Partner.
Although approximately 70 per cent of all South Koreans hold university degrees, the highest ratio among the OECD countries, export giants such as automakers Hyundai and Kia still rely on foreign talent and foreign components, making Korean cars relatively expensive.
“Kia and Hyundai employ former Audi and BMW designers respectively, and most auto components are bought from Bosch and Continental, as efforts to replace them with locally developed products failed,” Peterle said.
He recalled that when his organisation recently hired a foreigner, it took the company 80 hours to arrange the application. Although it was clear from the onset that the application would satisfy all requirements, “the bureaucrats still dug deeply into the applicant’s financial background, causing needless delay,” Peterle said.