A group of tourists from China pose for a selfie

A group of tourists from China pose for a selfie at Gyeongbokgung palace in Seoul on May 1, 2019. (Photo: Ed JONES / AFP)

Assimilating Southeast Asian Migrants into South Korea: Expanding the Meaning of Being “Korean”


Services to assimilate the Vietnamese diaspora into South Korea’s culture have helped to make connections with migrants from other countries, as well as diversify Korean society.

The number of Vietnamese people in South Korea number over 200,000 and now count as the largest expatriate population after the Chinese, of which there are around one million (although over two thirds of them are ethnic Korean). In general, demand for foreign migrants in South Korea has steadily risen. The increase is fueled by multiple factors: South Korea’s low birth rate, an ageing population, rural-urban migration, rapid industrialisation, the influx of Korean tourists to Vietnam, and targeted investment into the communist state. South Korea’s New Southern Policy towards Southeast Asia – which seeks to intensify linkages between Korea and ASEAN – provides the broader context for this trend.

The majority of Vietnamese in Korea tend to fall into three categories – labour migrants, spouses, and students. Migrant labour from Vietnam to South Korea dates back to the 1990s. Since 2004, an Employment Permit System places migrant workers in factories, agriculture and aquaculture throughout the country. Marriage migration, in which Korean men utilise matchmaking agencies and tours to identify Vietnamese women for marriage, rose quickly in the 2000s. This is often associated with younger women marrying rural bachelors as well as taking on in-law care duties. In 2009, 47 per cent of foreign marriages in South Korea involved Vietnamese spouses. The first decade of the 21st century saw Vietnamese-Korean cross border marriages increase a hundred fold. Migration to Korea also extends to education, where Korean universities have sought to boost declining enrollment numbers by recruiting more overseas students. Of the over 60,000 incoming Vietnamese migrants in 2019, 26.9 per cent were on study/ internship visas, 36.9 per cent were on temporary visas, 23.4 per cent were marriage migrants and 13.4 per cent were on work visas according to the Korean statistical information service.

travel office that facilitates legal paperwork and other services for migrants in Seoul
Photo of a travel office that facilitates legal paperwork and other services for migrants in Seoul, specialising in Vietnamese migrants. (Photo: Ivan Small)

These migration streams have led to varied discontents and calls for intervention including addressing the high broker fees paid prior to migration and disillusionment often encountered afterwards. The International Organization for Migration has partnered with the South Korean government to provide pre-departure workshops for marriage migrants moving from Vietnam to Korea to address information and expectation asymmetries. On the post-arrival side, South Korea has also developed support and oversight programmes for migrant families. These include a varied milieu: social integration seminars, family counselling, public health advisories, health insurance workshops, migrant childcare and education, domestic abuse shelters, medical interpretation, sports gatherings, college admission workshops, and job fairs. While primarily serving lower income South Korean households, such programmes are promoted as a positive development for a comparatively homogenous country. “Multi-cultural Families” are now celebrated as contributing to South Korea’s diversity and tolerance, and programmes for them provide essential services to help them adapt and acculturate to Korean society.

During a recent stint in Seoul, I participated in two municipal classes for multicultural families designed to support and teach the Korean language to foreign spouses. Students mostly hailed from Cambodia, China, Myanmar and Vietnam. Over 80 per cent of the participants were female, and after the Chinese, the Vietnamese represented the largest group. I found the class effective in teaching basic grammar, listening and reading comprehension, as well as conducive to building community across migrants of different origins via the “lingua franca” of Korean. The course was free and occurred on weekday mornings.

A separate Foreign Worker Center course concentrated learning in longer blocs on Sundays, designed for migrant labourers likely working Monday through Saturday. The language curriculum included typical topics such as shopping, activities, and the family. There was a clear multicultural dimension, in which dialogues often assigned character origins to regional migrant sending countries such as the Philippines. Attached to the pedagogical design were also extracurricular options. Although the classes were mostly held online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the multicultural family support center would occasionally offer get-togethers that ranged from cooking classes to cultural outings. Students were also introduced to television programmes for migrants, as well as practical life skill orientations such as driving and shopping sessions.

… such programmes have expanded the parameters of what it means to be Korean in the 21st century – including foreign spouses, workers, students and other immigrants – and fostered a space for connections among them.

Despite being occasionally pulled away for family duties such as child care, kimchi preparation, and travels, the students’ command of Korean grew exponentially during the course. Building a solid foundation of language combined with workshops centred on adaptation to Korean society were surely helpful for immigrants navigating their way in a new and often isolating linguistic and cultural landscape. But another outcome was that the class cultivated a sense of community among the participants, connecting them beyond their individual households. In the class space and its virtual aftermath, Korean language became a medium of exchange, offering migrants a space to share and reminisce on their own trajectories that brought them to South Korea as well as the unique cultural contributions each of them offered.

At the start of the course, the larger groups of Vietnamese and Chinese speakers tended to speak to one another in their native languages. By the end, however, students across all nationality groups were making social connections using basic Korean. A week after the class ended, the course’s orphaned Kakao social media group was re-animated with a flurry of “새해 복 많이 받으세요” messages on the first of January as students exchanged well wishes for the new year. Whether such programmes can or should assimilate migrants to “Korea” is debatable. Assimilation presumes a one way street of acculturation to host societies and a dilution of migrant cultural traditions. In actuality, such programmes have expanded the parameters of what it means to be Korean in the 21st century – including foreign spouses, workers, students and other immigrants – and fostered a space for connections among them. This is certainly one result of South Korea’s migrant adaptation and multicultural programming, whether intended or not.


Ivan V. Small is Associate Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at Central Connecticut State University in the United States.