You got a new job. It’s time to renew your visa. You’re applying for permanent residency. It’s hardly ever fun, friendly, or smooth-sailing. We look at some experiences with the most annoying and frightening part of Korea: The Immigration Office.    

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Credits

Produced by Joe McPherson and Shawn Morrissey

Music by Soraksan

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Notes

If you’ve come to Korea on holiday, you’ve probably had a pretty painless experiences with immigration – depending on where you’re from. If you’ve applied for a visa, needed to renew a visa, wanted to change a visa, changed jobs, or any other array of things while living and/or working in Korea, you may have had a more engaging experience.

Some well known hassles at offices:

  • Website doesn’t always give correct information
  • Officers don’t always know answers, won’t check; generally unhelpful 

Immigration is part of Ministry of Justice. Officers and agents are infamously rude, threatening, racist, and aggressive. Are accused of abusing authority. They’ve received plenty of bad press, especially in immigration raids.

Ministry of Justice guidelines prohibit abusive language, discrimination (against non-Koreans), aggressive behaviour when enforcing immigration laws.  

Yoon government launched crackdown on undocumented migrants, but human rights infringements are rampant in the crackdowns.

Government allows undocumented migrants to turn themselves in for deportation. 

2020

  • February: African man arrived at Incheon Airport, sought to apply for refugee status (political prosecution in home country; not disclosed)
    • Korea is infamously anti-refugee/xenophobic
    • Ironic, since there were refugees during the Korean War
  • Immigration didn’t allow man to file for status, stating because he was in transfer and thus couldn’t stay in Korea
  • Man was forced to stay in transfer section of Incheon Airport for 423 days
  • Incheon District Court eventually found airport immigration’s actions were unlawful
    • Immigration should have allowed man to apply for refugee status under Refugee Act
    • Court stated: ‘He may not have had permission to enter the country, but the Ministry of Justice restricted his bodily freedom under no legal grounds, which amounts to illegal detention.’ 

2022

  • Ministry of Justice’s use of restraints criticised
    • 2021: undocumented Moroccan  hogtied 
  • Restraints include chairs that restrain all limbs and neck
  • No specific regulation on length detainees can be kept in restraints
  • System deemed inhumane, worse than restraints used in prisons (attorney Lee Han-jae)
    • Enforcement Rule of the Act on the Administration & Treatment of Correctional Institution Inmates regulates limited use of restraining chairs
  • Heavy criticism from public, called Ministry regulations ‘legalized torture’
    • Joint Action Committee on Incidents of Torture at Immigration Detention Centres works against ministry

2023 – crackdowns deemed indiscriminate and useless 

  • April – Asan, Chungcheong-namdo
    • Undocumented man from Nepal caught by immigration (E9 visa had expired)
    • Man’s shoulder dislocated during arrest
    • Required medical treatment; officers threw him in detention instead of providing him treatment; finally sent to hospital next day
    • Doctor said man needed surgery; immigration refused, deported him following day; hospital bill (1 million won) given to another man arrested in raid
    • Man made official complaint to National Human Rights Commission of Korea over aggressive arrest leading to injury, refusal to allow doctor-recommended surgery, and forcing another detainee to pay hospital bill 
  • November – Gyeongju, Gyeongsang-bukdo
    • Justice Ministry conducted immigration raid at factory
    • Male ministry officer put undocumented female worker in chokehold; they then pull her out of factory to a bus; another worker is filming; videos cuts just as other officer appears to approach man, seemingly to force him to turn off video
    • Ministry regulation states female officers must be onsite to handle female detainees; female officers were there, but didn’t handle this one detainee
  • Increased, indiscriminate crackdowns are harming Korean economy
    • Most undocumented workers doing labour most young Koreans refuse to do (i.e. agriculture, factory, fisheries, etc.)
      • According to report called Current Status of Unregistered Foreign Workers in the Agricultural Sector and Tasks for Improvement (Korea Rural Economic Institute): 91% of Korean farmers employ undocumented workers
      • Similar with Jejudo fisheries in 2018: fisherman hired Yemani refugees because young Koreans refused to take the jobs 
  • Harm to squeaky clean K-pop image
    • Methods of crackdowns and poor immigration services for Thai nationals leads to Thai call for boycott on travel to Korea; two gov’ts met to discuss issue
  • Korea’s immigration plan: no plan at all, which is frustrating since more modern, intelligent immigration policies are the one clear solution to Korea’s looming population freefall 

Collected experiences (some are edited for length; thank you to everyone who shared their experiences; we received a ton and we can’t feature them all right now) 

  • David (Feb. 1987; Daegu):  I’ve had many (bad experiences), but this stands out as the worst:  I brought along my Korean girlfriend to help with translation, and the officer (male, maybe 40 years old) was giving me an unusually hard time; and then he asked me (with no context) “So, which bar does this girl work at?”.  I’m pretty sure he was provoking me, trying to get me to punch him or some-such, so that he could deny my new visa and deport me — I did not take the bait, recognizing the trap, kept my cool, she maintained stunned silence; I responded something like “No, actually, she’s a university student” — and we went back to the petty problems with how I had filled-out my form.  In the end I did get the visa.
  • Janice (Jan. 1996; Daegu):  I needed to get a multi-entry visa because I was planning on travelling to a few places in the next year. I had a male Korean friend with me to help with translation and filling out the forms. The immigration officer had a sour look on his face and said something rude to my friend about being with a foreign woman. My friend defended me, which the officer didn’t like and he angrily suggested that he and my friend go outside and fist fight. Luckily the situation cooled and I ended up getting my visa.. I didn’t actually know what was going on at the time and my friend told me all about it later. He said that Daegu tempers can be fiery and it wasn’t really a big deal. 😆 It ended up being kinda funny if really unprofessional and after that I was never too surprised by strange and quirky stuff in Korea. 
  • K (Dec. 2023; Seoul Southern Office): I was sitting waiting for my ARC and a girl who was leaving Korea for good came up to get hers. The officer told her she needed her passport and she said he PERSONALLY told her 2 weeks ago that she didn’t need it since she was giving it to the airport anyway. He told her he never said that. She asked if she could speak to someone else and he said ‘I don’t speak English’ and walked away! I was stunned and another officer came up and handled the situation. It was my turn next, and it was the same guy from before. He asked for my passport and he went searching for the ARC, took nearly (non-exaggeration) 5 minutes to take the sticker off of it. It was a post-it! It ended up taking some of the address ink off. I asked about it and he shrugged it off. He tossed the ARC and my passport back to me and said goodbye. Hope he’s not working in there anymore. 
  • Scuba Steve (March 2021; Busan): There are two incidents… In 2021 (during the pandemic) I had my list of things necessary and never had a problem before. I simply get the stuff on the list and then go to my appointment. This time, same story… I go in and give the paper work in to the officer at the desk at which point they ask me for my TB test… When I asked ‘What TB test?’, the officer gestures at a piece of paper on their divider window which states that from April of 2020 all African nationals need to provide a TB test… At this point I had not been home since January 2020 due to the little pandemic which was making the rounds… But I then say, well I did a TB scan for my contract renewal, my school could send the results… The officer calls my school and they have a chat and it comes out that the test I did for my school is invalid as I did it at the “wrong hospital” (a hospital I was referred to by my very first school in 2018) so I had to redo it and have my school send the results through to them. Which I did… Thinking it would be a blood test or something… Nope! Same old chest x-ray! So that was an inconvenience and annoyance because my point I tried to make to the officer was that I had been stuck in SK and the only place I could’ve picked up TB in the time they specified was in SK!
  • Juliet (Sep.2023; Nambu): When I moved hagwon and apartment, they said I could tell them all the information in one appointment instead of coming twice. I asked if there was a deadline for either and an officer on the phone said not if it’s combined. This isn’t true (which I know now) as I need to do both within two weeks (of moving and starting contract – which were different dates). Had to pay 100,000 won fine and they refused to accept this mistake had been made by them. Luckily my school reimbursed me. 
  • Minseok; former employee at immigration office; has several stories: One of the immigration officer told me this story. There was this one male officer who had been fired for his misconduct; it’s well known that it is a little hard to get “fired” as a level 9 government employee in South Korea. So the story goes as to how it happend. On a sweltering night one summer, this immigration officer was manning one of those entry inspection booths at an entry gate in Incheon Airport. There were hordes of people lining up;  note that this was way back in the day, before Machine Readable Passports. So even a casual entry inspection for Korean nationals would take longer than nowadays. The queue was stacking up and getting longer. So, naturally, the crowd was getting rowdy. Then, the usual run of the mill asshole ajussi starts yelling and screaming. “Why the fuck is this line NOT moving!!!???”, and just kept on onloading his soju smelling filthy words to this male officer at the booth. This ajussi kept going at him, “YA! YI GESSEKKIYA!! BALI HARAGO!!!” The male officer just had enough. So, what this male officer did, was to storm out of the booth, and walk up to this filthy mouthed drunk ajusshi asshole, and BOOM! stamped that “ENTRY GRANTED” onto his forehead, like branding, yelling back at him “here ya go you fucking asshole!!!!!!!!” The one officer who told me, while giggling and, basically not being able to hold his laugh, that this male officer had been let go but remained as the top legend