At least 70,000 ethnic Koreans from China will return home this year when their working visas expire. These migrant 'Joseonjok' have stayed in South Korea for the maximum five years allowed by the permit.
Many say the Korean visa system is discriminatory. South Korea allows ethnic Koreans from Japan or Western countries to stay indefinitely and renew their documents insinde country, whereas ethnic Koreans from China, called 'Joseonjok,' must go back to China first and then re-apply.
"We are made to feel like foreigners from a poor country," Kim Young-hwang, a 35-year-old Joseonjok worker from Harbin, China, told DW. "Koreans from wealthy countries are treated much better," he added.
Kim, like most of the other 115,000 holders of the special H-2 class of visas, work in what are called 3-D jobs: difficult, dangerous and dirty. These are low-paying jobs in construction, factories or restaurants that most South Koreans do not want to have. Despite that, some observers say the government limits the stay of Joseonjok to protect this sector for citizens.
"There is concern that Joseonjok will steal these jobs from South Koreans," said Kwak Jae-seok, who heads the Migration and Diaspora Research Institute in Seoul. "This allows the government to control the number of these migrants from entering the country," he told DW.
Kwak said that prejudice might play a role in the biased visa system for ethnic-Koreans as well. Many South Koreans blame Joseonjok for a rise in crime in some cities and anti-immigrant groups have petitioned to have all of these migrants deported.
"The discrimination has only increased because they are relegated to the 3-D job sector. This visa system is really the root of much of the prejudice toward the Joseonjok," Kwak said.
Improving the image of Joseonjok migrants is the first step in winning them legal equality, Kim Sook-ja, an advocate for Chinese-Koreans told DW.
"We want to show South Koreans that we are all Korean and that we can all live together," she said.
Kim added that for the Joseonjok that had to return to China this year, there wasn't much to look forward to. Most had already sold their homes or businesses and the money they saved while working in South Korea was not worth as much now based on the exchange rate, she said.
Migrant worker Kim Young-hwang is trying to switch to a more permanent visa, the kind that ethnic-Koreans from developed countries get. But he will first have to pass an examination that is reputed to go well beyond the high school level education that most Joseonjok have.
"I really do not want to return to China," he said, "but if I do, then I will just re-apply for the work visa and come back here again."