South Korea should ease immigration policies: Central banker

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's central bank governor on Monday stressed the need to ease immigration policy and bring more foreign workers to a country whose rapidly ageing population poses a serious economic challenge.

Speaking to foreign journalists in Seoul, Mr Kim Choong Soo said Asia's fourth-largest economy needed to "embrace more migrant workers" in order to drive future growth.

"For instance, the US welcomes one million, even up to two million immigrants a year, which helps its demographics remain so young and maintain economic vitality," Mr Kim said.

After years of promoting family planning in a crowded country of 50 million, South Korea has a chronically low birth rate that will halve the size of its youth population by 2060 and decimate its workforce.

One obvious way out, Mr Kim said, was the adoption of "more future-oriented and open immigration policies".

"By doing so we will be able to utilise these workers... in the right places of the economy and retain social vitality at the same time," he said.

By 2050, South Koreans aged 60 years or over will account for 39 per cent of the population, up from 17 per cent last year, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

South Korea's fertility rate - the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime - stood at just 1.01 in 2011, compared to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 1.71.

With South Koreans increasingly shunning low-paying manual jobs, Seoul in 2004 adopted legislation allowing companies to hire manual workers from 15 countries - mostly Southeast Asia.

As of last year more than 500,000 registered migrant workers - mostly from China and Southeast Asia - were working in the country.

Once an economic juggernaut that grew nearly 7.0 per cent a year on average since the end of the Korean War in 1953, South Korea has, in recent years, entered a phase of more measured growth.

The economy is expected to grow 2.8 per cent this year after expanding 2.0 per cent in 2012, Mr Kim said.