To Leave or Not to Leave

During Asia's economic crisis, thousands of Koreans laid plans to emigrate. Now, many are having second thoughts

By Jennifer Veale

Since December, 1997, South Korea has done a far better job than most of its neighbors in lifting itself out of the Asian economic crisis. But that didn't stop some 16,000 Koreans from leaving the country last year, looking for better lives. More than half of last year's expatriates landed in Canada. A third went to the U.S., and a trickle left for Australia and New Zealand. Though the numbers represent only a tiny portion of Korea's 47 million citizens, officials worry about a brain drain, since many of the applicants are white-collar workers with engineering, computer-programming, and finance backgrounds.

Many other Koreans who applied to leave during the downturn are only now receiving permission. And that poses a huge dilemma for many of them, now that the financial crisis is waning. The lure of the outside world is great. But family ties and attachment to the homeland tug them to remain at home. Doubts remain, but many Koreans continue to believe the world's 11th-largest country is destined for great things. But whether the potential emigrants stay or go could have a major effect on Korea's future economic vitality.

The soul-searching of La Soo, 45, a former bank manager and Seoul resident, is typical of what the would-be émigrés are going through. He applied three years ago for a Canadian passport. A few months after making his application, La, along with more than 40,000 other finance workers, lost his job when Korea's then-fragile finance sector toppled. He was recently informed that Canadian citizenship is in the offing.


  Today, however, La's family of five is not so sure about leaving the motherland. The currency crisis has passed, though South Korea is still busy trying to mend its fractured financial sector. The economy has slowed to a pedestrian pace, but growth is still higher than most countries, including Canada and the U.S. La and many others in his situation have landed new jobs and feel settled once again. The Korean tradition of caring for one's elders also is a very tough tie to sever. "I'm not sure if I can leave my father now," La admits.

La, and many others like him, must weigh those factors against their doubts about Korea's future. Many Koreans are fed up with their political system, especially the widespread corruption. They're far from certain the future political elite will be any less self-serving than the old guard. Korea's high-tech sector has also lost some of its shine of late. And there's a big question mark hanging over job security these days -- a crucial concern for Koreans, as the government has yet to provide workers with any tangible social safety net. Unemployment, now around 4%, will probably grow if the economy slows further.

The prospect of landing on a foreign shore with a much higher rate of unemployment than Korea's is not so daunting to the average Korean worker. Outside the country, well-educated Koreans know they're free to start small businesses. If they did that at home, they would have to worry about raising the ire of relatives. In Korea, says La, "it's hard to take a simple job when you have a good education. Your family and friends lose respect for you. But its different when we go overseas."


  Cheaper foreign education is also a lure. Many wannabe emigrants gripe about hidden costs of educating their children in the Korean system. They claim a typical family forks over thousands of dollars each year to cover the supplemental schooling often seen as necessary in Korea's competitive culture. Mothers also feel compelled to slip white envelopes containing cash to teachers to ensure that their child gets a little more attention than his or her classmates.

The government hopes the nation's gradual economic turnaround will help stem the flow. Officials also believe that hosting world-class events, such as next year's Korea-Japan World Cup, will help restore national pride and discourage emigration down the road. Just in case that doesn't prevent Koreans from flooding abroad, the government also refuses to grant its citizens dual citizenship -- though many emigrants still hold two passports illegally. But as La is finding, it's often hard to take the plunge and become a new passport holder in the first place. The government hopes that fewer and fewer of its citizens will take even that first step.

Veale, a contributing correspondent, covers Korea for BusinessWeek from Seoul

Edited by Thane Peterson