Crimes by foreigners hit 140,000 in South Korea over a five-year period conservative lawmaker Lee Cheol-woo told the press August 25. The story was carried by Yonhap News and the number “140,000” used in headlines in major media as the former Saenuri official called for an urgent increase in the policing of foreigners.

“A severe dearth of foreign-affairs police officers makes it difficult to prevent and respond to crimes committed by foreigners,” Lee said.

However, a careful anaylsis of the data suggests the foreign crime rate may even be declining as it has numerically risen marginally, while the number of foreigners living in South Korea has tripled over the past decade. Foreigners remain about half as likely to commit crime as Koreans. Experts suggest such media reports show prejudice and discrimination against foriegners.

“Fact and truth are different. That ‘a foreigner committed a crime’ may be true, however, why this crime happened may be different,” says Reverend Jason Lee of the Seoul Migrant Workers’ Center. “Also, Korean media does not deal with the percentage of Korean criminals and a comparative analysis with foreign criminals.”

British researcher Dr. Brian Bell found that crime rates in the United Kingdom were not linked to immigration, but that the media used the numbers of crimes – as opposed to the crime rate – to describe increases in crime naturally related to increases in population.

“You want to be careful when you’re thinking about this that your thinking about the crime rate rather than just the number of crimes,” says the Oxford University professor. “A lot of the media reports are things like the number of crimes went up when immigration went up by a million, well of course it did.”

Remarkably the largest increase – from less than 1,000 to more than 5,000 offences per year over a recent 3-year span – were traffic related, possibly due to a vast increase in the number of driver’s licenses issued to Chinese citizens in the period. Many Chinese visit South Korea to obtain a driver’s license and then more easily convert their license in China.

But other reasoning may also better explain the increase in foreign crime, and limitations in the statistics on crime frustrate experts.

An official at the Kyungnam Police Service Center feels the need for detail in foreign crime statistics, including a better breakdown of the types of crime and information regarding foreign victims of crime as well.

But the real issue this story and others describing foreign crime betray may be the discrimination foreigners face in South Korea. Discrimination is an issue that has been widely reported in the press, however, lawmakers have been slow to take action, with South Korea lagging advanced nations in developing anti-discrimination legislation. But foreign immigrants may have to be part of South Korea’s future, as a falling birthrate indicates the country will become extinct by the year 2750.

Still some South Koreans recognize the need to address discrimination, with users of the ultra-right forum Ilbe that frequently post racist comments drawing attention to the issue.

“Discriminatory remarks and hostility are spreading out through the internet and our daily life … anti-multiculturalism and racism have been deepening in Korea,” says Yonsei University’s Kim Hyun-mi. “The reason is lack of law and legal measures related to foreign discrimination. Hatred on foreigners is also crime.”