Bureaucratic strife for overseas Koreans

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Bureaucratic strife for overseas Koreans


Min Byeong-do, 21, is an “overseas Korean.” He and his family immigrated to Canada when he was 8 years old. After graduating from high school, Min came back to Korea to pursue further education at Yonsei University.

Although Min’s parents urged him to stay in Canada, where his family still resides, he packed his bags, explaining that he wanted to “experience life in the motherland.” His parents warned him that would have to find a way to pay for the expensive tuition fees at the Korean university himself.

Min had heard from his friends in Korea that they attended college by making use of student loans, and so he set his parents’ minds at ease and flew the nest.

But he was not aware of the fact that overseas Korean citizens are prohibited from receiving student loans from financial institutions, even from second-tier banks or money lenders.

“I had no choice but to ask my parents for money,” said Min. “I don’t understand why I have so many limitations. I’m not a foreigner.”

Seol Uhm-ji, 31, another overseas Korean citizen in Seoul, works at a large conglomerate. Her office hours start from 8:30 a.m. and finish well after 7 p.m., making it difficult for her to visit public institutions to fill in paperwork. Recently, Seol moved to a different area and knew she had to notify the dong, or neighbourhood, office about moving in to her new place. She was excused from work and visited the Cheongdam-dong office in Gangnam District, but she could not register her new address that day.

“There were a lot of people in line, so I waited patiently after filling in the form for move-in notification,” said Seol. “It was finally my turn, and an official told me an overseas Korean citizen like myself has to go to the Gangnam District office to file a move-in report. I didn’t have time to go all the way to the district office that day. It was such a hassle.”


President Park Geun-hye meets with overseas Koreans in Los Angeles at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel last May.[Joint Press Corps]

Seol said copies of documents showing family relationship or resident registration, which Korean citizens can get via the Internet, have to be obtained in person if you are an overseas Korean citizen.

“I am a Korean citizen with a Korean passport, but the country treats me like a foreigner,” Seol complained.

Hearing about such incidents raises the question of how exactly to define an overseas Korean citizen.

Overseas Koreans are Koreans with permanent residency in foreign countries. It means they moved to a different country and lived there permanently. They didn’t give up their Korean citizenship, but when they maintained permanent residency elsewhere, their Korean residency was terminated in Korea and their registration numbers or resident ID cards are no longer valid.

As a result, problems arise when overseas Koreans return to live in their home country. Because their resident registration is terminated, they are issued overseas Korean resident ID cards from the immigration office.

Like all Korean citizens, the first six digits on their registration numbers state their date of birth, but the next six digits start with a five for a male or six for a female, just like the alien registration numbers given to foreigners residing in Korea. The six digits for Koreans who have not lived abroad begin with a one for a male or a two for a female.

Without the “proper” registration numbers that start with a one or a two, many inconveniences occur, ranging from getting credit cards to signing up for websites.


The list of inconveniences goes on, and many overseas Koreans have expressed a feeling of displeasure with their mother nation as a result.

The number of overseas Koreans with Korean citizenship who return to their home country has been increasing in recent years. According to the Korea Immigration Service, 42,277 people were registered as overseas Koreans living in Korea in 2005. The number increased to 75,307 in 2012.

With the increase, Koreans from abroad have become vocal about the inconveniences of living in their own country and feeling as if they are treated as foreign citizens despite holding a Korean passport.

Speaking of Korean passports, Kim Hee-seon, 34, who also resides in Seoul as an overseas Korean, complained about not being able to apply for electronic immigration at Incheon International Airport. Koreans with “proper” Korean passports can register theirs at Incheon International Airport’s Auto-immigration Registration Center and can pass immigration electronically with a simple passport and fingerprint scan.

“I go on a lot of business trips, so I went to apply for auto-immigration with my Korean passport,” said Kim. “But the officials told me I can’t. I have the same green Republic of Korea passport, but I just can’t make use of such conveniences. Such instances upset me a lot.”

One of President Park Geun-hye’s presidential election pledges was to ease inconveniences for Koreans with permanent foreign residencies, especially those who have returned to Korea. One pledge was to issue registration ID cards similar to those given to Koreans who have not lived abroad, with a fingerprint on the back, by reviving terminated registration numbers.

Under Saenuri lawmaker Won Yu-cheol, the revision of the Residents Registration Law passed the National Assembly in December of last year. This will allow overseas Koreans with Korean citizenship who stay in Korea for more than 30 days to receive registration cards that will “allow them to alleviate inconveniences and limitations on financial and economic activities,” according to Won.

This will take effect next January. Late last month, another revised bill that abolishes the system of forcing overseas Koreans to report changes of residency in Korea, passed the National Assembly and will take effect from July 1, 2016.

“Since the two bills have successfully passed the National Assembly, the long-cherished wish of overseas Koreans has been solved perfectly,” said Won.

“So far, overseas Koreas, who are undeniably Korean citizens, have experienced administrative inconveniences, not to mention feeling psychological repulsion against their own country. They will experience increased benefits such as financial dealings and health insurance as well as have a sense of belonging as Korean citizens.”

However, it looks like there is still more to be done.

As the two bills will allow overseas Koreans living in Korea to revive their terminated registration numbers, existing documents ranging from bank accounts and loans to employment paperwork and house rental, which were processed with registration numbers starting from five or six, will need to go through a detailed system to minimize confusion.

When asked how he will handle the transitions with ease, Yeo Un-mo, an aide to lawmaker Won, said they hadn’t thought about that and that a detailed system will be established by the Resident Service Division of the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.

“There are many laws that are entangled,” said Yeo. “For overseas Koreans in Korea to be treated like ordinary Koreans and receive full health care benefits or deductions of tax and so on, related laws have to be amended and agreements have to be made between ruling and opposition parties.”

He went on to explain that his job as a lawmaker is not to carry out administration but “to change the law so that overseas Koreans in Korea no longer experience inconveniences. The rest of the administrative works will have to be figured out by concerned institutions.”

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]

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