[Viewpoint] The ultimate ‘country of origin’ dispute

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[Viewpoint] The ultimate ‘country of origin’ dispute

On Friday, the Korean government made a preliminary announcement of the revision of the Citizenship Act. These amendments have been extensively discussed in academia. When such changes are announced, most citizens, even among legal professionals, often fail to notice that any have been proposed at all. But this one is garnering special attention because it deals with the issue of dual citizenship, which had been a taboo in Korean society.

Korea has long allowed single citizenship only, and some holders of multiple citizenship were - without their knowledge - categorized as illegal immigrants or stateless persons. Many talented people gave up Korean citizenship, and talented foreigners were reluctant to stay in Korea. In effect, Korea has been limiting its ability to attract global talent and excluding potential contributors to its businesses and networks with other nations. So, to follow the trend of the time, the Korean government has announced the revised Citizenship Act and prepared a plan to minimize social side effects from allowing multiple citizenship.

The revisions are meaningful in two ways. First, the motivation to give up Korean citizenship has been removed to minimize the declining population in our low-birth, aging society. Second, Korea can attract global talent capable of helping it reinforce national competitiveness in the 21st century.

Statistics show that of local holders of multiple citizenship forced to choose just one, only several dozen have chosen Korean citizenship since 2005. In contrast, as many as 3,000 people chose their other nationalities. Hopefully, the revised law will reduce this serious drain on people with Korean nationality. Moreover, we welcome the decision to allow multiple citizenship because it means talented foreign nationals can now obtain Korean citizenship, and immigrants who are married to Korean nationals can become true members of a multicultural Korea while maintaining their original nationalities as well.

However, I cannot help but have doubts about whether the revised law will really reinforce national competitiveness if multiple citizenship is allowed only for certain groups. The revised Citizenship Act excludes Korean citizens who acquired foreign citizenship. Among the so-called “1.5 generation” Koreans who emigrated to other countries as children, those who obtained foreign citizenship through marriage with foreign nationals and those who obtained foreign citizenship to pursue professional careers after residing overseas for an extended period of time there are also talented workers who can help pursue our national interests. However, the revised law completely excludes them. While it is important to attract global talent to Korea, ethnic Koreans residing abroad can contribute as much, if not more, with glorious accomplishments that will enrich Korea’s competitiveness.

As borders are increasingly blurred in the era of globalization, the meaning of citizenship may grow less significant. Yet nationality is still a significant part of our sense of identity and belonging as individuals. We can take a lesson from the case of Yoichiro Nambu, a University of Chicago professor who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2008. Professor Nambu is a Japanese-born American. While Japan was excited that a Japanese scientist had won the Nobel Prize, the international media described him as an American. So the Japanese government is working more aggressively to allow multiple citizenship.

It is understandable that the government wishes to reduce the complexity of the issue by restricting those who can have multiple citizenship. However, no matter how widely the law is applied, once multiple citizenship is recognized, we are bound to face challenges regarding the scope of rights and duties of multiple citizenship holders as well as the range of protection by each nation.

From now on, the government needs to move the focus from modifying the boundary for those allowed to have multiple citizenship to creating a standard to minimize consequent social side effects and international friction.


*The writer is a partner attorney at Law Firm BEST.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Park Jeong-hae

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