[TODAY]No need to tempt Korean emigres

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[TODAY]No need to tempt Korean emigres

In 1990 when the Soviet Union was struggling to maintain its communist system, I visited the minister of culture of the Republic of Kazakhstan. The purpose of the visit was to facilitate an invitation extended to Korean-Russian performers from the Koryoin Theater to visit Korea. An ethnic Korean reporter in Alma-Ata advised me that when I met the minister I should stress that the performers were citizens of Kazakhstan and that we would like to invite them on the level of a cultural exchange. When we met a high-ranking official from Uzbekistan, the same advice was given to us.

The former Soviet republics in Central Asia, where more than half of the 500,000 Korean-Russians of the old Soviet Union are concentrated, are sensitive to how the country of origin, especially countries more economically advanced, treat their brethren. South Korea, Germany and Israel are included in this watchful vigilance.

More than 2 million Korean-Chinese live in China's northeast, and the authorities there are also sensitive to our policy and to the behavior of Korean tourists. China, a multiracial country, worries that Korean policy toward ethnic Korean Chinese could affect its own ethnic policies.

Professor Hahm Pyong-Choon, former chief of staff to President Chun Doo Hwan, was sensitive to ethnic politics. When the professor was appointed as ambassador to the United States, he told Koreans there to forget about Korea and adapt to their new home as soon as possible. Those were the times when rumors abounded that influential Korean emigres were waiting for a call from Seoul for a cabinet post or legislative seat. Expatriate Koreans criticized the ambassador's remark harshly. Korean-language newspapers remarked sarcastically, "Which country's ambassador are you?"

The issue of Koreans abroad should be dealt with as delicately as crafting glass objects by hand. The Korean government may provoke the country that accepted our migrants if the Korean government should excessively favor its emigres.

The Constitutional Court recently ruled that excluding certain overseas Koreans from the privileges granted by the Overseas Korean Act was unconstitutional. The ruling resulted from the discrimination now applied to overseas Koreans depending on the time of their emigration. But the bigger problem is a possible diplomatic row with China and the republics of the old Soviet Union if the law is changed to reflect the court's decision.

The current Overseas Korean Act provides various privileges to overseas Koreans. The act grants rights such as easy entry and exit from the country and allows transactions in real estate and in financial services. Those benefits are given only to overseas Koreans who left the country after the republic was established in 1948. It is discriminatory to withhold those benefits from people who fled Korea during the Japanese occupation to escape from harsh colonial rule.

The Korean government has to change the Overseas Koreans Act by 2003 according to the ruling of the Constitutional Court. That puts Seoul in a dilemma. The problem of discrimination would be solved if the new provisions increased the level of benefits provided to overseas Koreans in China and the former Soviet Union to be the same as those given to Korean residents in the United States, New Zealand and Australia. But it could cause more disadvantages for Koreans in China, Russia and the former Soviet Union if those governments believe that Korea is making a conscious effort to provide special benefits to "hyphenated Koreans" in those countries in order to woo them away from loyalty to their adopted country.

The Overseas Koreans Act must have as its focus the provision of benefits for overseas Koreans to help them successfully adapt to the country where they have moved. The legislation must not attempt to lure the emigre Koreans to return to Korea. It would be difficult for Koreans to adapt to the new country they have chosen if they still have hopes to become a minister, parliament member or a provincial governor.

Emigre Koreans who have been successful in business and the Korean member of the House of Representatives in the United States reached their status without the benefits of the Korean government's policy on Koreans abroad. That is the same for Koreans in the National Assembly of the Russian Federation as well as world-class singers and writers of Korean descent.

Koreans will still be Korean wherever they may go. So legislation should not impede Koreans in adapting to a new environment. They do not need a siren song calling them back to their home country.


The writer is a senior columnist of the Joongang Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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