[VIEWPOINT]Think twice about overseas votingWith the decline of President Roh Moo-hyun’s popularity nowadays, we often hear conservative Korean residents in the United States expressing regret over the political situation back home. What they say, with a sigh, is that “if only we had been given the right to vote, the results of the presidential election last time would have been different.”
Since there are no clear data such as a public opinion poll of the Korean residents in the United States, there is no way to prove this. However, it sounds quite plausible when we consider the fact that the majority of the 2 million or so Korean-Americans are considered to be conservatives and the winners of the 15th and the 16th presidential elections were decided by the margins of 390,000 and 570,000 votes respectively. In the midst of all this, it is said that the Central Election Management Committee has proposed a bill that will allow Koreans staying overseas for short-term periods the right to vote. Earlier than that, the governing party presented a bill that would allow voting rights to even Korean residents overseas who had permanent residency in another country.
In the last two presidential elections, the presidents were elected by a very small margin. And there is no guarantee this won’t happen again. Nevertheless, I cannot get rid of the feeling that the Korean political community does not pay enough attention to this issue. The announcements made by the various political parties hardly show a hint that they have agonized over the wishes of Korean residents overseas or have worried about the problems anticipated from the implementation of the new system.
Whether it is because of the uniquely high political consciousness of the Korean people or their sense of responsibility, many Koreans living abroad want to exercise their voting rights. It is even said that some overseas Koreans have produced the idea of launching their own political party, called the “Overseas Korean Party,” to approach the voting rights issue. Amidst all this, a Korean diplomat with the rank of ambassador provoked strong protests from overseas Koreans when he openly said he opposed “giving the right to vote to Korean residents overseas.”
Is it right to give Koreans living abroad the right to vote? If we give them the right to vote what will happen? We can find answers to these questions by using Poland as a model. As soon as the presidential race in Poland starts, all of the presidential candidates rush to the United States. During the presidential election last year, five to six Polish presidential candidates, including current President Lech Kaczynski, came to the United States. They staged election campaigns at major U.S. cities, such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, where many Polish people live.
Poland’s land size is three times that of Korea, while its population is around 38 million. There are another 9 million Polish-Americans. Since the Polish people who live abroad have comparatively little knowledge about the candidates before the elections, they are said to be more affected by the election campaigns. Therefore, the Polish community in the United States is considered to be the constituency that decides the Polish presidential elections.
A specialist on this issue and adviser to the Polish National Alliance, Les Kuzinski, said, “If Polish people living abroad participate in elections, they will get closer to Poland since their interest in their fatherland will be enhanced.” However, there are concerns, too. First of all, it is questionable whether the overseas residents who left the country a couple of decades ago can judge the domestic political situation of Poland and the candidates’ qualifications correctly.
There are even bigger concerns involving the community of Korean residents overseas. There are 20 or so local Korean resident associations in New York and New Jersey alone. What would happen if Korean politicians were to jump in and start to divide Korean residents? Probably, there would be criticism that “Korean residents in the United States are not making efforts to advance into the mainstream society there, but are just interested in Korean politics.”
Even more worrisome is the attitude of Korean politicians who handle such issues. Most of them, regardless whether they belong to the governing or the opposition party, say, “Shouldn’t we give them the right to vote since they are our people?” However, this is not a matter on the same level as giving someone a favor. It is not right to approach the matter thinking that it will help one party more if overseas residents are given the right to vote. Politicians must keep in mind that this issue can create a great storm in the overseas Korean communities.
*The writer is the New York correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nam Jung-ho