Meet the Movie Star Turned Lawmaker Who Wants to Reshape Korea

  • Jasmine Lee is the nation's first naturalized legislator
  • She's on center stage as demographics and ethnicity collide

Jasmine Lee.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The more famous Jasmine Lee became in South Korea -- first as a Philippine-born movie star and then as the country’s first naturalized legislator -- the more she became a lightning rod for debate about immigration.

Recruited four years ago to represent the ruling Saenuri Party as a proportional representative in parliament, Lee has become an outspoken campaigner for immigration in a society that prides itself on ethnic homogeneity. While she’s regularly the target of racially-based on-line attacks, Lee has also provoked a robust discussion on national identity as the country confronts the reality of a shrinking workforce as its population ages and the birthrate declines.

Policy makers who for decades stressed the importance of preparing for eventual unification with North Korea are waking to a more immediate problem: How to stoke economic growth as the number of South Koreans aged 15 to 64 peaks at 37 million this year and then begins to steadily drop.

After the rapid gains in efficiency that saw the rise of industrial powerhouses like Hyundai Motor Co. and Samsung Electronics Co., improvements in labor productivity are also getting harder to find. Advocates like Lee argue that a carefully calibrated immigration program could help the economy fill worker shortages at factories and also bring in creative minds in fields ranging from computing to finance.

“The country has grown so fast economically that the mindset of the people hasn’t actually kept up,” Lee, 39, said in an interview with Bloomberg. “Someone should actually plan out how Korea would look with a more diverse population -- how it would look in 10 or 20 years -- but nobody is actually doing that.”

President Park Geun Hye’s administration has taken small steps forward in its 2016-2020 demographics management plan. It will establish a "control tower" to help co-ordinate government agencies on all matters concerning foreigners and immigrants in Korea. More international students will be invited and professionals will be encouraged to stay longer.

The government will also seek to find a public consensus on the appropriate amount for immigration. In neighboring Japan, which faces similar demographic problems, any notion of turning to immigration is off the political agenda altogether.

Previous polls indicate mixed feelings in South Korea. The proportion of people who think social cohesion has been hurt by an increase in the number of multicultural families rose to 33 percent in 2013, from 26 percent two years earlier, according to a survey by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

Mixed Emotions

The study also found that 66 percent of people polled had a positive view about immigrants from the U.S., but that this approval rating dropped well below 50 percent for countries in Asia. People from China account for just over half of all foreign residents, followed by Americans and Vietnamese, both a little over 7 percent.

The number of foreign residents has doubled over the past decade to about 1.9 million, compared with the total population of 50 million. Foreign workers account for about 2.3 percent of the labor force, according to the most recent figures from the government. Most were engaged in manual labor, with skilled workers concentrated in language teaching and the entertainment industry.

Visa regulations prevent many foreign workers staying long enough to apply for permanent residency and eventually for citizenship.

Lee’s Journey

Lee emigrated from the Philippines in 1996 after her marriage to a South Korean man. She became a naturalized citizen in 1998 and has two children.

Her acting career and public profile took off with her starring role in the 2011 film "Punch" about a rebellious teenager in South Korea who reunites with his Philippine-born mother.

Saenuri Party competed with opposition in 2012 elections by trying to bolster a progressive profile and said its recruitment of Lee reflected growing international calls to protect the rights of immigrants. When Lee embraced the offer and became a lawmaker, it was soon apparent to her that the country had to give more long-term thought to immigration.

"Most of the policies that have always been tried for foreigners -- foreign workers, students and multicultural families -- are what I’d call first-aid bandages,” Lee said on Jan. 21. “They aren’t going to work for long, they’re going to burst open later."

Elections Looming

With elections approaching in April, Lee’s political future is uncertain. She wants to stay in parliament as a proportional representative but party leaders have yet to announce their decision.

Lee has ruled out trying to run for a specific district because migrants are thinly scattered around the country and she doesn’t have the kind of long family ties to one area that many lawmakers rely on to win election campaigns.

While the politics of immigration remains controversial, researchers like Professor Mo Jong Ryn at Yonsei University are calling for change.

"Immigration can be approached as a way of not just increasing workforce, but strengthening overall economic competitiveness," said Mo, the author of the book "Immigration Powerhouse". “We should consider ways to lure foreign workers in high-tech, growing industries, which would also necessitate a change in Korean corporate culture.”

Seoul Mayor Park Won Soon highlighted how migrants are helping to maintain the city’s population while also making it a more diverse and global center.

In the meantime, Lee is maintaining her sense of humor to ward off some of the on-line attacks. One of her most persistent critics is so incensed that a foreign-born person has been elected to the parliament that he’s talked of moving to another country.

"They’re not thinking of what they are going to be when they move out," she said. "They’re basically going to become me!”

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