Foreign students who stay in Korea for more than six months from July must compulsorily enroll in the nation's health insurance plan.
That means about 100,000 international students will have to pay insurance premiums up to seven times higher than what they have been paying, according to the revised law.
The decision comes after the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced the revision of the National Health Insurance Act, set to take effect on July 16, stating that all foreigners, including students, must join the state insurance system if they stay here six months or longer.
As of now, most international students use a private insurance program mediated through their universities. The plan covers minor illnesses and injuries, while underwriters pay for inpatient treatment and death. Some insurance companies even pay the cost of transporting the student's bodies to their homeland or the cost of bringing their family members to Korea in case of death,
Also, private insurance companies offer customized services for international students, such as 24-hour service for major languages and messenger counseling through mobile applications such as KakaoTalk and Wechat.
Currently, most foreign students enjoy these benefits paying just 100,000 won to 110,000 won ($85-$94) per year.
Under the new amendment, however, international students will have to pay 56,530 won per month from July, which adds up to 678,000 won a year, six to seven times higher than what they are paying to private insurance companies.
Foreign students expressed worries about the financial burden and negative impact it might have on their stay in Korea.
"I feel as though the new amendment does not count in the financial circumstance of foreign students in Korea," Joseph Schmidt, a German student who is studying in Korea, told Korea Biomedical Review. "Not all students who come to Korea to receive an education are financially supported."
It is also not easy to find additional revenue sources such as getting a job since most international students don't speak Korean when they first arrive in Korea, he added.
A female student studying at Korea University noted that she felt like the Korean government is acting in a racially discriminatory manner through the new rule.
"Not all foreign students come from developed countries," she said, asking to remain anonymous. "This is perhaps a coded message from the Korean government saying that Korea only wants certain nationalities in their country."
The new plan is also facing fierce backlash from university employees.
One employee has lodged a petition on the online petition site of the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae, demanding that the government withdraw its new regulation.
"I am very disappointed to hear abruptly about the guidance of foreign students' health insurance system as there were no prior public meetings or discussions with practitioners," the petitioner said. "When foreign students join the state health insurance system rather than a private insurance company, they will have to make a direct payment."
However, Korean banks limit the account creation for some countries such as Iran and Ethiopia, he added.
The petitioner pointed out that in the case of international students with these nationalities, they would have to visit the bank directly to pay the fees once a month, which is difficult for students.
The employee also highlighted a conversation he had with a National Health Insurance and Assessment Service (NHIS) employee regarding the high price of the insurance fee.
"When asked why the government decided to go ahead with the amendment without any prior discussions during the briefing session, the NHIS official stated that the health insurance deficit last year totaled 200 billion won," the petitioner said. "The comment felt like the government was trying to reduce the deficit by taking money from foreign students."
In reality, however, not many international students living in Korea are economically well-off, the petitioner added.
The university official said he feared the steep increase might only end up increasing illegal residents in Korea.
"Although the amount has risen to an unreasonable level, if the students are delinquent on their fees, it may affect their visa renewal and have other disadvantages such as the seizure of properties," he said. "I would like the government to reconsider the regulation, as these problems can lead to the rise of illegal residents."
Facing stiff resistance from both the students and universities, the Ministry of Education said that it would ask the Ministry of Health and Welfare to make an exception for international students as private insurance is more convenient for international students.
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