National-Local Networks and Immigration Governance: Playing Politics in South Korea with Immigrant Pawns

Prof. Jill Tao

The politics of immigration has always been a somewhat touchy issue for nation-states. The ability to regulate the flow of goods, capital and people across borders is one of the defining characteristics of political power. But there is not always agreement between the central government and local officials as to the desirability of immigration, where local governments may desire greater, or fewer, numbers of immigrants, depending on the local economy and labor needs. In South Korea, there can be considerable policy distance between the national government's stance on immigration based on the politics of the ruling party, and the attitudes of local immigration officials who work for metropolitan cities (those with a population of one million or more). In this paper, I look at the impact of local economic market needs on local attitudes towards national immigration policy, and the mitigating impact of interest groups (e.g. local businesses, local political parties, and local labor organizations). Using interviews with local officials, I find that different cities have different economic needs, and therefore different attitudes towards particular groups of immigrants based on their countries of origin. National politics plays a role only when the mayor of the city is a member of the same ruling national party. Otherwise, business interests hold sway. I offer recommendations for applying the model to other national-local contexts.