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South Korea's Hottest Import: Foreign Workers

Factories welcome immigrants from the rest of Asia
Ngo Tien Thanh from Vietnam works on the production line manufacturing shrink-wrap at the Homyeong Chemical Industrial factory in Pocheon, South Korea
Ngo Tien Thanh from Vietnam works on the production line manufacturing shrink-wrap at the Homyeong Chemical Industrial factory in Pocheon, South KoreaPhotograph by SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Sharma Sagar is the new face of Korean manufacturing. The Nepalese studied Korean for years, competing with other candidates to be chosen for a government program set up to help South Korea supplement its dwindling labor pool. “I’m earning a lot here, about 20 to 25 times more than back home. I want to stay here as long as possible,” says Sagar, 31, who has been mixing materials to produce vinyl at Homyeong Chemical Industrial, north of Seoul, since he arrived in May. Sagar earns 2.35 million won per month ($2,180) and sends most of it home to his wife.

With its fast-aging population, South Korea has gone from a country where labor was the only abundant resource to one seeking foreigners to help run its plants and farms. Japan has largely rejected imported labor as a solution to its aging workforce, but South Korea is starting to accept it. The number of immigrants has risen sevenfold, to 1.5 million, since 2000. That’s 2.8 percent of the population. Immigrants could make up more than 6 percent by 2030, the government says. “It’s inevitable that we will have to absorb foreign labor to boost our economy,” says Choi Kwang Hae, a director general at the Finance Ministry.