[FORUM]Immigration Policy Should Be Rethought

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[FORUM]Immigration Policy Should Be Rethought

With the tragic death of 25 Chinese who suffocated while being smuggled into Korea by fishing boat, the problem of ethnic Koreans entering from China has become one of the hottest social issues here.

Some ethnic Koreans from China reportedly held a memorial service at a church in Seoul last Sunday, appealing to government to " have mercy on those who want to come to our grandparents' land with at least a 'moonshine policy,' not to mention a 'sunshine policy,' toward us."

Reading their heartfelt appeal, we should ask ourselves what should be the relationship of ethnic Koreans in China to us at this time and in the future.

When the government enacted a law on the legal status of overseas Koreans in September 1999, that was the first official discussion on the subject. After a great deal of controversy, ethnic Koreans in Russia and China were excluded from the application of the new law, which almost completely liberalized the entry into Korea of ethnic Koreans - if they could prove their Korean lineage through a family registry here. In the case of Korean-Russians or Korean-Chinese, the Ministry of Justice held that if those persons' families had left Korea before 1948, when the Republic was founded, they had never been recognized as Korean nationals and were therefore not accommodated under the new law. In fact, the Foreign Ministry raised objections on more practical grounds, such as conflict with neighboring countries, national security and protection of the domestic labor market.

However, many scholars believe the legal interpretation is wrong: the Korean Nationality Act, when it was originally enacted, did not specify the eligibility of applicants for nationality. The first South Korean nationals, therefore, should be all Koreans living here and abroad at the time of liberation from Japanese rule in 1945. Most ethnic Koreans in China and Russia left Korea during the 35-year colonial period, and the Republic of Korea is the successor of the Shanghai provisional government during the colonial period, so many scholars say that it is historically and legally wrong to designate Aug. 15, 1948 as the beginning date for acquiring Korean nationality.

If Korea had not been divided and if a regime friendly to Korea instead of a communist regime had been established in China, the situation of Korean-Chinese would be different. They are loyal Koreans who fought against the Japanese and sacrificed themselves for our country.

But the ruling went against them, and during the cold war the Koreans in China and Russia became Chinese and Soviet nationals without an opportunity to affirm their nationality here. Though ethnic Koreans in China and Russia are asking for a revision of the 1999 law, saying Seoul is discriminating against them and in favor of rich Koreans in the United States and Japan, their requests have fallen on deaf ears.

How can we justify this discrimination by the mother country against poor Koreans abroad who have a legal claim to citizenship here? While this crackdown on both legal and illegal entry of Korean-Chinese is going on, the Yanbian self-governing region of ethnic Koreans in China is crumbling, and residents' ethnic ties with Korea are weakening. When the autonomous region was established, 60 percent of the population - about 2.5 million persons - were ethnic Koreans. After Deng Xiaoping's open door policy in 1978, many ethnic Koreans there left for large Chinese cities and for Korea to earn money, and now ethnic Koreans in Yanbian are dwindling in number.

We should not ignore the plight of 3 million ethnic Koreans of China and Russia, who comprise more than 50 percent of all Koreans abroad. We should go back to square one and review our policy.

The hope of ethnic Koreans of China is not to recover the nationality they lost 50 years ago. Their hope is for making some money in the rich mother country and returning to their hometowns to live a rich life.

Is Korea so poor and small that it cannot meet the modest hopes of poor ethnic Koreans? I don't think so. It is a matter of a narrow government strategy and an absence of vision for Korea and Koreans.


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The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Moon Byung-ho

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