The Justice Ministry is considering adding a Korean language proficiency requirement for D-4 general training visas for certain nationalities. D-4 visa is issued to those who want to study Korean at qualified institutions or learn skills or technology at public research organizations.
The ministry is currently seeking opinions on this matter from language institutes attached to universities. It is considering making it a requirement for applicants to pass at least Level 2 in the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK), which means the applicant can speak enough Korean to get by in daily life such as making phone calls and using banks or the post office.
Currently, D-4 visa can be obtained with a simple background check, but many overstay them and work illegally in Korea. The plan is to apply this new hurdle for people from 26 countries including China and Vietnam, where many illegal immigrants come from.
As of the end of September this year, 11,177 people are now staying in Korea illegally on a D-4 visa, double last year's 7,136. "The number of people staying illegally is rising fast, but we don't have enough manpower to track them down," a ministry official said. "That's why we're considering tightening visa requirements."
The total number of illegal immigrants is expected to surpass 350,000, and the justice ministry has 250 people just working on cracking down on them.
But universities argue that it makes no sense to require a certain level of proficiency from people who come here specifically to learn Korean in the first place. There are often limits to learning Korean in their home countries, and TOPIK tests is not administered in over 130 countries.
"Why do we have to stop students who wish to come to Korea because they like Korea? I've never heard of such visa requirement for language students in other countries," said a staffer at well-known university in Seoul.
Another university staffer in North Chungcheong Province said, "If this comes into effect, the number of language students will drop by half. One university in North Jeolla Province is considering opening a Korean language course in Vietnam to teach prospective students before they can come to Korea.
The move might also have a negative effect on the global popularity of Korean popular culture. A professor at a private university in Seoul said, "About one-third of our students are K-pop fans. They invite friends over from their home countries, and go to K-pop concerts. Many of their friends end up becoming language students in Korea themselves."
Even the U.S., which is constantly vowing to get tougher on illegal migration, does not request language skills from language students at the visa application stage but instead keeps a closer eye on them when they are there.
For example, U.S. authorities check their attendance at school every three or four weeks. If the number of absences increases suspiciously, the visa is forfeited and investigation begins.
Kim Nam-jo at Hanyang University said, "Language students from abroad are among the main advocates of K-pop culture. Rather than making it hard for prospective students to enter Korea, we should come up with a better measure to ensure they stay within the legal limits."
The ministry will hold a meeting with officials from universities on Monday, and announce the final plan by the end of the year.