[Viewpoint] Overseas Koreans must be matureTwo years ago, the Los Angeles branch of the Joongang Ilbo took a survey of the 369 attendees from 65 countries at the World Korean Community Leaders convention in Seoul. On the question, “What is the most embarrassing news to learn about Korea from abroad?” 41 percent responded, “disorderly conduct in the National Assembly.”
The overseas Koreans felt ashamed to see reports of lawmakers breaking doors with a hammer and chain saw and spraying fire extinguisher. A Korean community leader said that it was regrettable that the overseas Koreans are working hard to make a good impression for the country, but the politicians ruin it at once.
This time, regrettable news came from the overseas Korean communities. On May 28, the election for the chairman of the Federation of Korean Associations, USA was held in Chicago. After the votes were counted, 64-year-old Kim Jae-gwon defeated 57-year-old Yu Jin-cheol with a 105-vote margin.
Among the qualified votes, 139 voted directly at the event while 804 cast votes by mail. Kim lost in the on-site poll but received large numbers of absentee ballots. Yu’s camp refused to accept the result, claiming that the addresses of the absentee voters did not correspond with the voter registration information. He called the police and reported the case.
Controversy continued after the election. Yu held a press conference on June 11 in Los Angeles and revealed that Kim had offered to hand over a $150,000 check in return for Yu acknowledging his defeat. In response to the claim, Kim sent an e-mail to Korean community leaders across America. I obtained a copy of the e-mail from Kim, and he, in fact, admits to having given $150,000 to Yu.
He explained that he heard Yu had spent a lot of money on the election campaign and ended in debt, so he wished to comfort the electoral loser. He initially prepared $50,000 “out of consideration for the loser,” but he learned that Yu had already paid $150,000 in attorney fees. “Since I would have to hire an attorney if the case goes to the court, I wrote him another check for $100,000 in addition to the $50,000 check to avoid unnecessary expenses.”
Kim apologized for his motivation to prevent further disturbances at the federation out of loyalty for the Korean community, and he pledged not to repeat such a foolish thing again.
The members who paid the membership fee of $200 are eligible to cast a vote for the chairman of the Federation of Korean Associations, USA. Those who paid the membership fee for other members or provided transportation, accommodation, food or entertainment are deprived of electoral eligibility. However, an insider familiar with the federation’s operation said it was an open secret that both sides had violated the regulation.
The election is especially noteworthy since Korean citizens residing abroad will be able to vote in the general election on April 11, 2012, and the presidential election on Dec. 19, 2012, for the first time. There are about 2.3 million eligible voters residing abroad. Their votes would have enormous power since the presidential election result was determined by 390,000 votes in 1997 and 570,000 votes in 2002. It has already become a common practice that Korean politicians make an extra effort to form friendly relationships with local Korean communities whenever they get a chance to go abroad.
In October 2010, the then-chairman of the Federation of the Korean Associations, USA had an event celebrating the publication of his book at the Sejong Culture Center, and many politicians attended the event.
Despite criticism that the overseas Koreans are given the right to vote without paying taxes, the National Assembly revised the law on the election of public officials in February 2009 and allowed overseas Korean citizens to vote.
Thus, overseas Korean communities need to demonstrate a mature political culture. They need to end feuding within their local communities as well as election corruption. The latest election of the Federation of Korean Associations adds to these worries, much less eliminating them.
In Los Angeles, two Korean community associations operated after the election last year and had two Korean leaders until they were combined recently. People joke that the chairmen of the Korean associations in the United States are appointed by the court because lawsuits are so common.
Most of the overseas Korean leaders have accomplished notable success in foreign countries. They are proud assets for Korea and form valuable global networks.
Hopefully, the chaotic political culture of hammers and chain saws will not spread to the overseas Korean communities.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Noh Jae-hyun