Chapter 2. Evolution and Characteristics of Labour Migration to Korea

This chapter covers the recent history of migration to Korea and the development of overall migration policy in the country. It notes the transition to a net immigration country in the 2000s. It discusses the rising share of foreigners in the total resident population, compares it to trends in other OECD countries and examines the categories under which foreigners are resident in Korea. The chapter examines the age, education and employment characteristics of the foreign population in Korea, by gender, relative to that of the Korean population and in international comparison. The chapter examines the contribution of foreigners to employment in different sectors of the Korean economy, assessing the role of foreigners in the composition of change in the labour force over the past decade as compared to other OECD countries. The chapter then discusses the main institutional actors and recent economic migration policy milestones in Korea. The chapter concludes with an overview of the visa system and of inflows by visa category.


The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

Korea has become a net immigration country

Korea was for many years a country of emigration. In the first half of the 20th century, prior to the Second World War, more than 4 million Koreans migrated to Japan and China, according to the National Archives of Korea. Following the War, migration opportunities were more limited, and it was not until the late 1960s that Koreans started to emigrate in large numbers. However, emigration ran at high levels in the 1970s and 1980s, especially to North America. Over these two decades, the United States admitted 613 000 Korean permanent residents, and Canada admitted about 70 000.

In addition to this emigration – which was supported by the government at the time – Korean companies contracted labour abroad, imposing conditions and currency controls to keep earnings in Korea. In the 1960s, Korea dispatched about 8 000 miners and 10 000 nurses to Germany. Another large outflow of labour migration was deployment of construction workers to Middle Eastern countries in the 1970s. The Korean government deliberately encouraged overseas employment, but required that some part of the migrants’ wages be paid in Korea in order to finance domestic economic growth (Park, 1991[1]).

Migration to Korea only began in the late 1980s. When the Korean War ended in ceasefire in 1953, Korea was one of the poorest and least developed countries, and faced the challenge of building industries and stabilise its system; in the decades which followed, few foreigners had occasion to come to Korea. Entry was strictly controlled by the government, primarily for security reasons. Immigration began to occur in significant numbers when full employment was reached in the late 1980s. Labour shortages began to be felt in SMEs, especially for the most taxing jobs in so-called 3D (difficult, dirty, and dangerous) industries: dyeing, plating, heat-treatment, casting and tempering, machinery, footwear, glass, leather, electricity, electronics factories, and construction (Seol and Han, 2004[2]). The number of foreigners gradually increased, mainly due to growing inflows from China of Chinese and of ethnic Koreans – descendants of those who left in the early 20th century – and in the number of trainees entering from other Asian countries. The normalisation of diplomatic relations with China in 1992 contributed to the inflow (Oh et al., 2012[3]). Still, it was not until the 2000s that immigration flows exceeded the number of Koreans migrating overseas. Since 2005, net migration to Korea has been positive.

The increase in the foreign population between 2000 and 2015 was about 400%, by far the largest increase among OECD countries (Figure 2.1, Panel A). It rose from 0.5% of the population in 2000 to 2.3% of the population in 2015. This excludes temporary residents (those with permits for less than 90 days) and undocumented foreigners.

Figure 2.1. Korea has a fast-growing but relatively small foreign-born population

Note: Data refer to 2000 or the closest available year, and to 2015 or the most recent available year. For countries shown in grey (Chile, France, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia), the data refer to the foreign-born population rather than the foreign population. Israel: foreigners are legally resident foreign workers and asylum seekers, see (OECD, 2010[4]).

Source: OECD International Migration Database.

The foreign population in Korea, as a share of the active population age 15 and above, rose from 3.1% in 2013 to 3.7% in 2016 (Figure 2.2, Panel A.). Legal long-term foreign residents rose from 2.2% of the total Korean population to 3% of the total population over the same time period, excluding temporarily present foreigners and illegal overstayers, who together add an additional 1% to the share.

Figure 2.2. The foreign population in Korea is a growing share of the active population

Note: Economically active population aged 15 and above. Data from 2012 only. Total foreign population includes short-term stays and overstayers.

Source: Panel A. Foreign Population, Korea Immigration Service. Economically active population: Foreigners Labour Force Survey, 2013-16, Korean Statistical Information Service. Panel B. Korea Immigration Service

The main group of foreigners in Korea, accounting for half of the total in 2016, comprises Korean-Chinese, ethnic Koreans whose families left Korea in the first half of the 20th century and who do not hold Korean nationality. Excluding this group, Chinese nationals comprised 14.3% of the foreign population, followed by Vietnamese (9.4%). In addition to labour migration, one factor in the growth of migration over the course of the past two decades, was the sudden and sharp increase in marriage migration. Marriage migration to Korea has largely involved women from China and Southeast Asia marrying Korean men, who are often low-educated and resident in rural areas. Many of these marriages were arranged or brokered (Lee, 2008[5]). The share of marriages with a foreigner rose from less than 2% in 1990 to 3.5% in 2000, then to 13.5% in the peak year of 2005, when about one in three marriages involving a rural man was brokered with a foreigner. Marriages with foreigners have since fallen to about 7% of the total in 2015 (OECD, 2017[6]). This group of migrants accounted for about 15% of all foreign residents in 2010 and has continued to grow, although less rapidly than other groups. By 2016, two categories composed almost entirely of Korean Chinese accounted for 43% of all foreigners in Korea: a Work-Visit (19%) and a long-term stay visa for overseas Koreans (24%). Temporary guestworkers comprised 18% of foreign residents. Permanent migrants who are neither ethnic Koreans nor family members of Koreans accounted for 8%; this includes major investors and family of other foreigners. Skilled workers comprised about 3.2% of foreign residents, although some skilled workers have obtained long-term stay permits and are classified as permanent migrants.

Overall, about half of the resident foreign population held temporary-type permits, some of which are indefinitely renewable, while half held long-term stay permits.

The foreign population has different characteristics from the Korean population. Notably, it is younger: 31% of foreign residents are between 25 and 34 years old. Further, the educational attainment of the foreign population is far below that of the Korean population (Figure 2.3). Among OECD countries, Korea is one of the countries where the gap between the share of highly educated among native and foreign-born is greatest. This gap is even greater when considering that the younger Korean population in particular has a very high educational attainment.

Figure 2.3. There is a wide gap between the education of natives and foreigners
Shares of the highly educated among native- and foreign-born 15-64 year-olds who are not in education, 2017.

Note: For Korea, data covers foreigners and immigrants who have been naturalised in the past 5 years.

Source: European countries and Turkey: Labour Force Surveys (Eurostat); Australia, Canada, Israel, New Zealand: Labour Force surveys; Chile: Encuesta de Caracterización Socioeconómica Nacional (CASEN); Mexico: Encuesta Nacional de Ocupación y Empleo (ENOE); United States: Current Population Surveys. Korea: Survey on Immigrant’s Living Conditions and Labour Force 2017 and Economically Active Population Survey of Korean nationals (EAPS) 2017, provided by MRTC.

In 2017, the employment rate of foreigners in Korea, 71% is, despite the lower educational attainment, slightly higher than the Korean average (68%). The employment rate of foreigners in Korea is also above that of the foreign-born in most OECD European countries and comparable to the rate in the United States (Figure 2.4). This relatively high rate partly reflects the younger age of the foreign population and the fact that it is skewed towards men, who have a higher employment rate (the foreign population above age 15 is 55.3% male). However, it also reflects the fact that employment and economic opportunity are the main channels through which foreigners come to Korea.

Figure 2.4. Foreigners in Korea have a higher employment rate than nationals
Employment rate by place of birth, 2017.

Note: The population refers to the working-age population (15-64). Data for New Zealand includes people still in education. Data for Australia and the United States include people aged over 24 who are still in education. The United States calculates rates for the 16- to 64 year-old age group. Korea calculates rates for the 15-59. Japan determine who is an immigrant on the basis of nationality, not on the basis of country of birth. Korea includes in the immigrant population all foreigners and immigrants who have been naturalised in the past 5 years. Countries are ranked by increasing order of the 2017 values of the foreign-born employment. Information on data for Israel:

Source: European countries and Turkey: Labour Force Surveys (Eurostat); Australia, Canada, Israel, New Zealand: Labour Force surveys; Chile: Encuesta de Caracterización Socioeconómica Nacional (CASEN); Mexico: Encuesta Nacional de Ocupación y Empleo (ENOE); United States: Current Population Surveys. Korea: Survey on Immigrant’s Living Conditions and Labour Force 2017 and Economically Active Population Survey of Korean nationals (EAPS) 2017, provided by MRTC.

Relative to other OECD countries, the foreign population in Korea is predominantly male (Figure 2.5). Men comprise 55.3% of the foreign population age 15 and above, while the average across OECD countries is closer to 50%. The employment rate of male foreigners is 81%, which is the comparable to the United Kingdom and the United States, and much higher than in most Western European countries. The employment rate of female foreigners, however, is just 51%, similar to the United States and many European countries.

Figure 2.5. Korea has a high share of men among foreigners, and low employment among foreign women
Foreign residents by gender and employment, age 15-64, 2015.

Note: For Korea, age 15+, 2016.

Source: European labour force surveys, CPS for United States, FLFS for Korea.

The share of foreigners in employment in Korea more than doubled over the past decade, increasing from 1.6% in 2005 to 3.6% in 2016. In relative terms, this was the largest increase in the foreign share of employment in any OECD country (Figure 2.6). Korea still has a lower share of immigrants in employment than the share in most OECD countries, however. Korea was not alone in seeing an increase in the foreign share of employment over the decade: almost all OECD countries have seen a growing share of employment comprising foreigners. The increase is particularly notable in some Western and Southern European countries: it more than doubled in Denmark, Norway and Finland, and grew by 70-80% in the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Ireland and Italy. In contrast, some major immigrant destinations such as France and Spain saw very little change over the decade.

Figure 2.6. The share of foreigners in employment has increased sharply over the decade
Share of foreign in total employment, 2005 and 2015 or latest year.

Source: Europe: LFS or GSOEP (Germany); United States: CPS. For Japan, MHLW survey of employers, October 2016, and 2016 LFS. Korea, 2005 KIS Statistical yearbook, FLFS and EAPS, May 2016. Israel, PIBA figures for foreigners (including cross-border workers) and LFS for nationals, 2016.

The role of new immigrants in the composition of the change in the labour force over the decade 2005-15 – about 9% - is smaller in Korea than in many other OECD countries (Figure 2.7). The total labour force increased significantly over the decade, by about 12%. Change in the labour force is driven by retirement of older workers, entry from inactivity and exit to inactivity by prime-age workers, young workers entering the labour force, and new migrants. The loss to retirement over the decade 2005-2015 in Korea was among the lowest in the OECD, although this is expected to increase in the following decade 2015-25. Overall, 14% of new entries comprised new immigrants, 79% were young workers, and 7% were prime-age workers. The importance of new immigrants in the composition of labour force change was particularly strong in the manufacturing sector, where overall labour force growth of 10% was among the highest in the OECD (Figure 2.A.1). The population employed in low-skill occupations also increased over the decade, in all likelihood due to new immigrants (Figure 2.A.2).

Figure 2.7. New immigrants are driving labour force growth in many OECD countries including Korea
Composition of the change in the labour force, by demographic group, 2005-15.

Source: Europe: LFS; United States: ACS; Korea: LFS, FLFS

Driving employment of foreigners appears to be a group of firms which relies on recruiting foreign workers, a fraction of total employers which has not varied over recent years. The bi-annual survey of establishments, which covers firms with at least five employees, indicates that since 2008 about 10% of firms have turned to foreign workers to meet vacancies (Figure 2.8). While other responses to labour shortages in firms have varied over time – notably, firm willingness to increase wages, and a lower reliance on temporary and dispatched workers – the share seeking foreign workers has remained stable. This figure of 10% of firms is much higher than the share of foreign workers in employment of firms over five employees.

One aspect which is particularly noteworthy is that while other firm strategies for dealing with labour shortage have changed significantly over the past decade, recruitment of foreign workers has seen little variation. For example, in July 2011, the 40-hour statutory work week was extended to firms with 5-19 employees (firms with four or fewer employees are exempt from statutory limits on work hours). This affected the ability of these firms to use overtime to meet labour demand, evident in the corresponding drop in Figure 2.8. Training and use of dispatched workers are also variable, as are wage increases. The stability of the share recurring to foreign workers suggests that there is a demand-side limit to the use of foreign workers to fill vacancies, or a supply-side constraint on the type of firms which are eligible to consider employment of foreign workers.

Figure 2.8 The share of firms recurring to foreign workers has remained stable
Firms' responses to need to fill vacancies, 2008-16, share of firms employing each response

Note: Excludes firms which did not take action following unfilled vacancies.

Source: Occupational Labour Force Survey at Establishments.

Box 2.1. Data sources on migration in Korea

The Population Census and Labour Force Survey of the Statistics Korea

The analyses on the context for labour migration in Korea mainly use the Population Census and the Economically Active Population Survey (EAPS), which are particularly useful to capture long-term dynamic changes of demographic structure and economic activity by virtue of their long history. Korean statistics system follows the citizenship classification not the place of birth in investigating the nativity information of individuals. The annual population census records nationality at birth and current nationality, not the place of birth. Aggregate statistics on foreign population by age, sex, nationality and the year of entry is publicly available. The EAPS is a monthly survey targeting residents aged 15 years or older in Korea. This survey includes foreigners in its sample from 2009 in the light of the increasing foreign population and the statistics disseminated through the survey represents the overall economic activity of the nationals and foreigners.

By the early 2010s, as the number of foreign residents in Korea surpassed one million, the inadequacy of survey instruments to capture these new residents was apparent. To improve coverage, the first Foreign Labour Force Survey was conducted in 2012. This annual survey, based on a sample drawn from residence permit holders, was conducted until 2016. In 2017, it was replaced by a more ambitious Survey on Immigrant’s Living Conditions and Labour Force. The SILCLF introduced two major improvements. First, the revision increased comparability with statistics from other OECD countries by including in the sample citizens naturalised within the preceding five years, and identifying the current and at-birth nationality of parents. Second, the SILCLF added biennial questionnaires on social participation, health and living condition, as well as a triennial permit-specific module, covering non-professional workers and students in 2017, ethnic Koreans in 2018, and permanent residents in 2019.

Administrative data sources on immigration

In Korea, administrative data is another major source on migration and every entry and exit is recorded owing to its geographical characteristics equivalent to a remote island (double-card system). The Korea Immigration Service under the Ministry of Justice, which administers the entire procedure of permit issuance and immigration, publishes statistics on administrative data on visa applications, nationality acquisition, stock and inflow of foreign residents by age, sex, nationality, sojourn status, and duration of stay since 1960. Another administrative dataset, the Status of Foreign Residents in Local Governments, from the Ministry of Security and Public Administration, disseminated from 2006, is one of the few sources that provide information on naturalised citizens in Korea. This source includes population by previous nationality before naturalisation and the date of naturalisation as well as the population of minor children of foreign residents at the local municipality level.

Sources on Employment Permit System and sector data

Data for the Employment Permit System is managed by the Ministry of Employment and Labour which is in charge of the policy planning and implementation. The ministry’s affiliated organisations, the regional employment centres and the Human Resources Development Service of Korea (HRD Korea) collect data and report it to the Korea Employment Information Service (KEIS). EPS raw data - the details of E-9 and H-2 workers’ economic activity - is used in policy making of non-professional foreign manpower such as allocating monthly permit quotas by industry. Limited information on the number of businesses and foreign workers by nationality and industry under the EPS is available through the Employment Trend report of the Employment Permit System. On the other hand, the Survey on the Status of the Ppuri (Root) Industry of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy allows firm-level analysis in this subset of the manufacturing sector, where foreign manpower comprises mainly E-9, H-2 and E-7 holders. The survey is the only publicly available source, as far, on the turn-over rate, tenure, language skill of foreign workers by firm-level as well as the transition of E-9 workers to E-7 status. Lastly, an annual Survey on Establishment of Small and Medium Enterprises by the Small & Medium Business Administration entails information on manpower shortages, difficulties in recruiting and employer efforts to retain workers of SMEs in the manufacturing, service and construction sector, from 2008.Additional surveys on EPS employers and workers are conducted by research institutions and business associations, such as KLI, KBiz, KOSBI, on different topics as necessary, though these are generally one-time and feature a small sample size.

Sources on education and mixed-background households

Lastly, the analyses on international students and professors were possible with data from the Korean Educational Statistics Service (KESS). In addition, although not used in the review, there is an abundance of surveys targeting “mixed households” and their children (families which consist of at least one Korean national), including the Survey on the Actual Conditions of Multicultural Families, the Multicultural Youth Panel Survey, and the National Multicultural Acceptance Survey. Aggregate statistics are accessible from the Korean Statistical Information Service (KOSIS).

The Basic Plans on Migration and co-ordinated migration policy

Korea’s modern labour policy migration co-ordination dates to the 2007 Act on the Treatment of Foreigners in Korea, the first attempt to bring immigration policy under a single co-ordinating platform. Since then, immigration policy co-ordination has occurred under the Immigration Policy Commission, established under the Prime Minister. The lead ministry (assistant administrator) is the Ministry of Justice.1 This Commission produces the Basic Plan for Immigration Policy every five years, which covers border control management, nationality, and social integration. The Plan is re-formulated every five years with the consultation of heads of relevant national-level administrative bodies.

In 2008, the Ministry of Justice introduced the First Basic Plan for Immigration Policy approved by the Immigration Policy Commission. The first plan aimed to control systematically and centralise the immigration policy as well as to set a long term plan and prospects based on multiculturalism and global competitiveness.

The first plan proclaimed an “open-door” policy to reinforce global competitiveness by attracting a more highly-skilled foreign work force, accepting low-skilled labour only where necessary, and giving incentives to overseas Koreans in terms of easy entry and employment. Second, it pursued a “multicultural society where other cultures and race are well received and can co-exist”. This was to prepare a highly diversified society and to protect human rights of foreign residents. In addition, it emphasized the importance of order and law regarding immigration. Measures against illegal employment of foreigners and border control were toughened. It also planned to strictly monitor the length of stay, employment of migrant workers and any crimes committed by foreigners.2

The Second Basic Plan for Immigration Policy for 2013-17 (“Vibrant Korea growing with immigrants”) encompassed similar issues as the first plan (border control, immigration, nationality, and social integration). Based on multiculturalism, it reinforced the previous policies. The Plan focused on improving infrastructure for foreigners, attracting more high-skilled workers and students, providing public services for foreigners to help adapt to Korean society, defending human rights of foreign nationals and migrant workers and offering skill development in sending countries. It again emphasized stricter border security, control of information on foreign residents and sanctions for illegal employment aimed at both workers and their employers.

The managed labour migration components in the Second Basic Plan fell primarily under the first of the five overall objectives, “openness”. This pillar was meant to support economic stimulus and attract human resources, specifically under four sub-objectives: i. to increase the number of visitors, ii. to attract “in-demand [foreign] human resources”, iii. to attract foreign students, and iv. to bring investment for “balanced regional development”.

The Second Plan largely maintained the dichotomy between non-professional and professional workers, even as it recognised that resident foreigners could be divided into highly-skilled, “partially-skilled” and unskilled. The plan maintained the principle that the number of unskilled workers granted work permits should remain subject to a limit (without specifying that limit), and that recruitment among SMEs should be allowed “to a reasonable extent”. At the same time, the Second Plan, unlike its predecessor, made explicit the need for a bridge for unskilled workers to acquire skills to pass from the unskilled category to higher-skill categories. The Plan called for programmes to develop the language, social and vocational skills of high-potential unskilled foreign workers.

The Third Basic Plan for Immigration Policy was published in February 2018. It advances many of the same objectives as previous plans. Several key points in the first of five pillars have direct implications for immigration policy in the next five years: to strengthen support for and attract talents; to secure growth engines and invite foreign workers; to increase economic stimulation through tourism and investors; to establish an immigrant inflow system with a converging perspective; and to reorganise residence and nationality system and prepare for immigrant population increase. The Basic Plan for 2018-22 acknowledges the growing role of the foreign workforce and the increasing share of immigrants in the Korean population. At the same time, it does not signal any major policy shift regarding temporary labour migration, although it reflects policy objectives to reduce the proportion of low-skilled workers, and attract higher-wage, higher skill migrants.

The plan does not set numerical targets for migration, although these may be established in individual action plans by different ministries to achieve objectives agreed under the Basic Plan. The Basic Plan rather guides policy development in the domains it covers, identifying issues which have emerged in the implementation of the preceding plans. Key policy decisions, such as the ceilings on the stock of ethnic Korean work-visitors, the annual admission quotas for the EPS E-9 programme, the duration of stay of workers and the lists of eligible and non-eligible occupations, are decided through consultations rather than fixed in the Basic Plan. Decision making on such key policy choices occurs through different political mechanisms in other OECD countries, according to their objectives (Box 2.2).

Box 2.2. Migration planning and “Foreign workforce” management policy structures

The objectives of migration policy vary among OECD countries. Most countries do not have an explicit demographic objective of maintaining a working age population, although Australia, Canada and New Zealand plan admission volumes on an annual or triennial basis with demographic considerations in mind (OECD, 2014[7]) These countries select candidates for their economic migration programmes based on different criteria, and set levels for programme management and to regulate the impact on residents of inflows. Humanitarian resettlement programmes are also set, in these and other OECD countries, according to decisions on annual processing and integration capacity, in line with general policy objectives and funding allocations. Family migration channels are sometimes also capped, although certain categories such as spouses of nationals are exempt (OECD, 2017[8]). Permanent migration levels under planned targets and caps may shift according to economic circumstances, as was seen during the downturn of the late 2000s (OECD, 2009[9]). Countries with ageing populations and forecast rapid changes in the dependency ratio have not turned to migration as an explicit strategy to counteract this trend, as the inflows necessary to change the dependency ratio are in most cases much higher than current flows.

Labour migration management, with the exception of the planning used in the countries above, has been focused on demand-driven migration and deciding which mechanisms to use to weigh employer interest in recruiting foreign workers from abroad against other policy priorities, such as protecting resident workers, upskilling the working age population, maintaining social cohesion, etc. The bodies determining foreign workforce policy are usually not separate from the general labour policy bodies. While some decisions on foreign worker numbers and sectors are taken through the political process – which may lead to fixing entries in legislation, as in the United States H-1B and H-2B programme – the process usually involves a phase of empirical data analysis and a consultation with social partners and other stakeholders to reach a compromise solution.

The labour migration framework in Korea

The modern migration framework brings together a series of disparate visas and permits which have developed over the past three decades.

Korea has a complex visa framework for migration management comprising more than 170 separate sub-categories. The overall framework, introduced in 1993, divides visas into visa classes from A to G; the classes of relevance for labour migration include C (short-term visas), D (research and study), E (employment), H (overseas Koreans visiting) and F (long-term and permanent residence). Within each class of visa, there are categories (e.g., “E-9: non-professional employment”) and sub-categories (e.g., “E-7-4: skilled worker through the points-system”). The conditions for admission and employment vary according to the permit sub-category (Table 2.1).

With the exception of a few categories, initial admission of economic migrants is dependent on sponsorship by their employer (i.e., a valid employment contract). For most categories, there is a possibility of changing status to long-term stay (F visas), although residence duration and criteria vary among categories. Korea has a number of long term stay categories (F-1 to F-4) which grant varying degrees of rights.

Permanent residence (F-5) – unconditional stay and right to reside and work in any occupation, comparable to long-term permanent residence in European OECD countries and to permanent migration in the United States and “settlement” OECD countries (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) – can be acquired after five years of residence, although there are some pathways which require only a shorter period.

Table 2.1. The visa framework for labour migrants is complex
Permit categories related to labour migration, 2017.

Major Category


Target Group

Conditions for entry/employment

Short-term employment


Short (up to 90 days) visit for employment


"Professional Employment"


Highly Qualified Employment



Teachers and professors






Technical Instructor / Technician






Entertainer, Athlete



Skilled employment (list of occupations)



Points-based skilled E-9 visa holders


"Non-Professional Employment"


Temporary workers under EPS



Maritime workers/ship crew



Overseas Koreans "visiting employment"

Labour market access

Study and Research



Institutional sponsorship


International Students

Institutional sponsorship



Institutional sponsorship


Language and non-degree education

Institutional sponsorship



Institutional sponsorship


Religious Worker

No labour market access


Intra-company transfers



Skilled employees of a FDI company



Required employment for a FDI company



Trade Management



Job-Search Permit

Seek E-1 to E-7 job

Investors and entrepreneurs


Start-up entrepreneur



Tech venture investor



Tech investor/entrepreneur



Owner of foreign investment firm



Real-estate investor

Labour market access


High-investment investor

Labour market access

Long-term stay


Family members of F-2 and F-4 visa holders

No labour market access


Domestic employees of certain foreigners



Family reunification, other forms of residence

Labour market access


E-9/H-2 meeting skill and income requirements

Labour market access


Points-Based Residence

Labour market access


Spouse/child of D-1 to 10 (but not D-3) and E-1 to 7

No labour market access


Overseas Koreans

Occupation restrictions


Permanent residence (5 year requirement)

Labour market access

Permanent Residence


Spouse/Child of Korean national

Labour market access

Note: Not all visa sub-categories are shown, not all details of each visa are provided.

Source: Ministry of Justice.

As a result of the many long-term stay categories, the pathway from temporary residence to permanent residence involves multiple possibilities, more than in most OECD countries, and appears more complex. OECD countries can be distinguished into those which grant immediate permanent residence to selected economic migrants (the United States and settlement countries) and those in Europe which grant initial temporary permits, allowing permanent residence after a certain number of years (generally four or five). In the United States and settlement countries, the clear trend in recent years has been towards two-step migration, with labour migrants first arriving as temporary workers and transitioning to permanent residence. This is now the majority of cases of permanent residence even in settlement countries. Also prevalent in labour migration channels is three-step migration, where students become temporary workers and then permanent migrants (OECD, 2014[10]).

Korea, however, has a permit system where pathways from temporary to permanent stay have multiplied, with conditions attached to each sub-category. Temporary skilled workers with an E-7 visa, for example, may qualify for an F-2 long-term stay visa; if they do not, they may wait five years before applying for an F-5 permanent residence visa. Many long-term stay visas require the recipient to remain in the same job, so cannot be compared with long-term residence or permanent status in other OECD countries. Depending on the field of employment and characteristics of the employer, graduating international students may receive an E-2, E-3 or E-7 visa, or certain long-term stay visas depending on the field (e.g., overseas Korean may receive an F-4-21 visa for teachers, and F-4-18 for professors), or qualify immediately under a points-system for an F-2-7 visa, which allows an F-5 visa after three years instead of five. The maximum duration of permit issuance related to individual visas varies as well, so that some E-7 permits may be issued for up to two years and others up to three.

Regarding the rights of family members, residence rights and labour market access depend on the sponsor visa. Students (D visas) and workers (E-1 to E-7 visa holders) may bring family, but their family members do not have work rights. F-2 and F-4 long-term stayers may also bring family, but the employment access of their family members varies. Most family members on F visas do not have labour market access without qualifying for another visa category independently. In other OECD countries, the conditions for family reunification and the employment access of family members are specific to each permit. The wide range in conditions for eligibility for different permits, and the varying rights of these permits, reduces the transparency of the Korean labour migration system relative to other OECD countries.

Inflows by main categories

There are two main categories of temporary labour migration to Korea: non-professional and professional. Prior to 1990, there were almost no labour migrants in Korea. There has been a steady increase in the inflow of temporary foreign non-professional workers – first as trainees and later under the two main categories of temporary non-professional work permits. This group now is split into foreign workers admitted under bilateral agreements (the Employment Permit System, or EPS) and ethnic Koreans admitted on a Working Visit permit (H-2 visa). By 2004, non-professional labour migrants comprised around 2% of total employment of the medium-educated, and by 2009 more than 3.5%. This excludes those who obtained permanent residence status, a growing group. In 2016, overseas Koreans holding permanent residence accounted for the single largest category of foreign residents, about one-quarter, of which about 65% were in the economically active population.

Figure 2.9. A sharp increase in the number of temporary foreign workers in the late 2000s
Non-Professional Temporary Foreign Workers, stock and share of low-educated employment, 1990-2016.

Note: 1) Total employment is taken from the number of employment of the EAPS for lower education levels. 2) Status classification is completely revised in 1993, so values before 1993 are linked with relevant status after revision. Employment Status 9-11 pre-1993 is considered professional.

Source: Korea Immigration Service Statistics Yearbook.

In addition to non-professional workers, there is a smaller but also growing number of professional labour migrants. Prior to 1993, all these workers fell under a single category. Since then, there are separate classifications for different professional activities. The largest group has historically been language instructors; their number peaked in 2010 at 23.3 thousand, but has since fallen as Korean youth cohorts shrink and the demand for native English speakers has declined in response to changes in university admission requirements. The group which has grown the most is that of Special Occupations (E-7), a catch-all category for different skilled occupations ranging from specialty chefs to skilled tradespeople. Nonetheless, labour migrants account for a marginal share of total employment in professional occupations in Korea.

Figure 2.10. Higher-skilled labour migration has been much less significant
Professional Temporary Foreign Workers, stock and share of high-educated employment, 1990-2016.

Note: 1) Total employment is taken from the number of employment of the EAPS. 2) Status classification is completely revised in 1993, so values before 1993 are linked with relevant status after revision.

Source: Korea Immigration Service Statistics Yearbook.


[5] Lee, H. (2008), “International marriage and the state in South Korea: focusing on governmental policy”, Citizenship Studies, Vol. 12/1, pp. 107-123,

[6] OECD (2017), “A portrait of family migration in OECD countries”, in International Migration Outlook 2017, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[8] OECD (2017), “A portrait of family migration in OECD countries”, in International Migration Outlook 2017, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[7] OECD (2014), “Managing labour migration: Smart policies to support economic growth”, in International Migration Outlook 2014, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[10] OECD (2014), “Managing labour migration: Smart policies to support economic growth”, in International Migration Outlook 2014, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[4] OECD (2010), “Better Managing Labour Migration”, in OECD Reviews of Labour Market and Social Policies: Israel, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[9] OECD (2009), “International Migration and the Economic Crisis: Understanding the Links and Shaping Policy Responses”, in International Migration Outlook 2009, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[3] Oh, J. et al. (2012), “Migration Profile of the Republic of Korea”, Research Report Series, No. 2011-01, IOM Migration Research and Training Centre, Seoul, (accessed on 18 October 2017).

[1] Park, Y. (1991), Foreign Labor in Korea: Issues and Policy Options.

[2] Seol, D. and G. Han (2004), “Foreign Migrant Workers and Social Discrimination in Korea”, Harvard Asia Quarterly, Vol. 8/1, pp. 45-50.

Annex 2.A. Supplementary figures

Annex Figure 2.A.1. Composition of the change in employment by industry sector, by demographic group, 2005-15

Source: Europe: LFS; United States: ACS; Korea: Ministry of Employment and Labor, LFS, FLFS.

Annex Figure 2.A.2. Composition of the change in low-skill occupation, by demographic group, 2005-15

Source: Europe: LFS; United States: ACS; Korea: Ministry of Employment and Labor, LFS, FLFS.


← 1. Members of the Commission are: the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministries of Strategy and Finance (MSF), Science, ICT & Future Planning (MSIF), Education & Science and Technology (MEST), Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Ministry of Public Administration and Security, Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST), Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery, Ministry of Knowledge Economy, Ministry of Health and Welfare, Ministry of Employment and Labor, Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs (MLTM), Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, Korea Communications Commission, National Police Agency, Small and Medium Business Administration, and the Korea Coast Guard.

← 2. Budget lines associated with the Basic Plan have been significant: the first Basic Plan in 2009 led to a budget of about USD 555 million, mostly for social integration (55.6%). The Commission reported in 2013 that about twice as much was effectively spent on related projects between 2009 and 2012.

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