South Korea has recently made changes to its investment immigration program in response to concerns about a disproportionate number of Chinese immigrants gaining residency. This move comes after controversies surrounding Chinese permanent residents’ voting rights in South Korean local elections, which are not reciprocated for Koreans in China. Critics fear that this voting system could be manipulated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The strained relationship between the two countries was further exacerbated by a controversial speech made by a Chinese ambassador that was seen as interfering in South Korean internal affairs.
To restore balance, the South Korean Ministry of Justice announced on June 29 that the required investment amount for immigrants would be significantly increased. The minimum investment needed to secure the F-2 residence visa will be tripled to 1.5 billion won ($1.1 million), and the investment for the F-5 permanent residence visa will be doubled to 3 billion won ($2.2 million). Additionally, the foreign retirees’ immigrant investor visa program, which allowed retirees over the age of 55 to obtain Korean residency status with a 300 million won ($230,000) investment, will be discontinued.
The investment immigration system has faced criticism since its implementation in 2010 due to adverse effects such as land encroachment, overheated real estate prices, and environmental damage caused by indiscriminate property purchasing by Chinese investors. However, the government aims to mitigate these effects by doubling the minimum real estate investment required for immigration.
The South Korean investment immigration scheme has been criticized for its relatively low thresholds compared to other countries, leading to an over-representation of Chinese immigrants. Countries like the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Portugal require higher investment amounts in their immigration programs. For example, the US program stipulates an investment of between $800,000 and $1.05 million, along with the creation of 10 jobs. Australia requires an investment of AU$2.5 to 5 million ($1.66 million to $3.33 million) for its Investor Visa, while New Zealand requires an investment of NZ$5 million ($3 million).
Statistics show that a significant majority (85.3%) of foreigners using the South Korean investment immigration scheme between 2018 and 2022 were Chinese immigrants. Chinese immigrants represented 70.8% and 94% of those obtaining residency through public welfare and real estate investment programs, respectively. As a result, a record-breaking 126,000 foreign residents, with almost 100,000 being Chinese nationals, were eligible to vote in the 2022 local elections. This represents 80% of the total eligible foreign voters.
In light of growing tensions between South Korea and China, the Chinese Ambassador to South Korea, Xing Haiming, faced backlash after indirectly criticizing Seoul for siding with the United States instead of China. His remarks caused further deterioration in the relationship between the two countries, with lawmakers calling for his expulsion. The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned him and accused him of violating diplomatic protocols and interfering in domestic affairs. President Yoon Suk Yeol also criticized Ambassador Xing’s behavior and questioned his understanding of mutual respect and friendship.
The South Korean government has increased pressure on Beijing over this incident, with senior officials waiting for China to consider the issue and take appropriate measures. However, China has avoided addressing these concerns and instead accused South Korea of hyping up the issue. Some parliamentarians from the ruling People Power Party have called for the expulsion of Ambassador Xing and the revocation of voting rights for Chinese permanent residents. They worry about the potential misuse of these voting rights by the CCP to interfere in South Korea’s internal affairs.
In conclusion, South Korea has raised its investment immigration threshold in response to concerns about the disproportionate number of Chinese immigrants gaining residency. The government hopes that these changes will restore balance and address the adverse effects of the investment immigration system. The strained relationship between South Korea and China has been further complicated by a Chinese ambassador’s controversial speech, leading to calls for his expulsion and the reassessment of South Korea-China relations.