GK:2.1.4 Population movement

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 Geography of Korea: II. Population and Living Space > 1. Population > 4) Population movement

4) Population movement

The movement of the population is primarily driven by political, economic, and social factors. There has been population movement in Korea from the very earliest period but due to the lack of data it is very difficult to ascertain the patterns and nature of this movement. In pre-modern society the major drivers of population movement were such factors as climate abnormalities, natural disasters, and war. Many fled famine or epidemics brought on by natural disasters as well as war of environments of conflict. What's more, the government forced, or at the least coerced, many people to resettle on the frontier for purposes of national defense. During the Joseon period the government moved many from the southwestern region to north frontiers in the aim of bolstering the national defenses.

(1) Domestic population movements

Liberation from Japan in 1945, national division in 1948, and the Korean War (1950–1953): three historical events that resulted in the movement of peoples the likes of which has rarely been seen. Liberation in 1945 brought many Koreans living overseas back home, while national division triggered a wave of refugees from the North towards the South, and the Korean War increased the population of South Korea’s large cities, by those seeking refuge from the conflict or North Korean defectors to the South.

With rapid economic growth starting from the 1960s the urbanization of South Korean society accelerated. The latter half of the 1960s witnessed a rural exodus towards urban centers, with over half of the total migrants during this period moving from rural areas to cities. Migration to the country’s large cities, namely, the capital region centered on Seoul and Incheon, Busan, Daegu, Gwangju, and Daejeon, as well as industrial urban centers on the southeast coast, such as Ulsan, Pohang, and Changwon, proceeded at a brisk pace. Over the last thirty years the internal migration rate of South Korea has averaged about 20 percent, very high when compared with other countries like Japan (5.3%), Taiwan (7.4%), and Norway (4.1%). However, if one examines this population movement more closely one finds that it is more often a case of short-distance moves within the same city rather than long-distance relocations between two cities.

Contributing factors to this population movement can be related to familial, economic, and educational factors, among others. For males, the primary factor is economic, while for females the main factor is generally familial—either related to relocation due to marriage or the relocation of the head of the household. Education-related factors to migration are very common in Korea. Korean parents place a very high value on education, resulting in migration to large cities where the best educational opportunities are concentrated.

The unequal population distribution brought about by the growing concentration of the populace in cities and the overcrowding of metropolitan areas has created a problem of inefficient land use. For South Korea, developing population policies to address this has been a rising challenge.

(2) Overseas migration

In premodern Korea overseas migration was very rare. In Korea, international immigration has its origins at the end of the Joseon period when destitute farmers migrated beyond Korea’s northern frontier to Manchuria and Russia’s Maritime Province. This migratory trend accelerate during the Japanese Colonial Period (1910–1945), when many Koreans fled to China and Russia to escape Japanese colonial exploitation. During the period 1903–1905 some Koreans also immigrated to Hawaii—then a United States territory—and Mexico as laborers. Korean immigration to Hawaii was soon discontinued under pressure by Japanese authorities, who wished to protect the Japanese laborers there. During the Japanese colonial period there was also some Korean immigration to Japan, particularly after 1939 when a military and labor conscription system was initiated, between 100,000–200,00 Koreans were mobilized to Japan annually. As mobilized labor they were sent to work in coal mines and industry complexes. By the time of national liberation in 1945 the number of Koreans living overseas had reached about five million.

Even following liberation overseas migration continued. The year 1962 marked a notable development in the passage of the Overseas Emigration Act. As emigration became an aspect of national policy, rates of emigration increased. During the 1970s, with the collapse of South Vietnam and the deterioration of the political situation in South Korea, overseas migration increased further. For about a decade starting in the mid-1970s over 30,000 South Koreans per year emigrated abroad. After this, however, with the growth of the national economy overseas emigration has gradually dropped off. Looking at the distribution of ethnic Koreans residing overseas, the greatest number are in China, with about 2,489,000 Koreans living there as of 2010. This is followed by the United States (2,102,000), Japan (913,000), Canada (223,000), and Russia (222,000). Among these, the destination of most Korean immigrants since 1945 liberation has been the United States.

Meanwhile, the numbers of non-Koreans immigrating to South Korea is on the rise. In 2006 South Korea had more incoming migrants that outgoing emigrants. The majority of foreign residents of South Korea are migrant laborers or the spouses of Koreans as well as their children. By national origins, the largest number of these foreign residents are Korean Chinese. With the growth of foreign residents in Korea the number of mixed Korean-foreigner marriages also increases, transforming South Korea into a multicultural society.

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