[VIDEO] A single father's battle to help Korea's unregistered children

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[VIDEO] A single father's battle to help Korea's unregistered children

 
For single fathers in Korea, registering the birth of their children is no simple feat. Before 2015, it was near impossible for single fathers to register their children without the child’s mother, because the law dictated that only a mother had the right to do so.
 
No registration means no social security number and no access to any of the government’s childcare or welfare policies, not even health insurance.  
 
Kim Ji-hwan is a single father of a daughter who knows all about this difficult process. It took more than a year and four lawsuits, along with multiple one-person protests, for Kim to register his daughter Sa-rang’s birth, and then register himself as her father. Kim was desperate to provide Sa-rang with the things that most take for granted.
 
 Kim Ji-hwan, left, changes a diaper of a baby of a single mother while playing with his daughter Sa-rang, right, at their home in Gyeonggi. Kim looks after the children of single parents while they are working. [JEON TAE-GYU]

Kim Ji-hwan, left, changes a diaper of a baby of a single mother while playing with his daughter Sa-rang, right, at their home in Gyeonggi. Kim looks after the children of single parents while they are working. [JEON TAE-GYU]



"That was the hardest," said Kim. "I didn’t ask for anything. I didn’t ask for any welfare for single parents. Only if my child has a social security number then she could go to daycare. I could work part-time jobs or work at construction sites, I could do anything it takes to raise this child. I thought, just please give her a social security number.
 
So many things happened. First, I couldn’t apply for any childcare or daycare service so I alone had to take care of the baby. That meant I couldn’t work or make money at all. The baby was too young for me to do anything, but then after about three months, I took her around on a stroller all day looking for a job.
 
A baby doesn’t let you know in advance or say, ‘Hey dad, I’m going to get the flu in two days.’ It doesn’t work like that, does it? ‘I’m going to get an infectious disease, I hope you’re ready.’ If this was the case then I could get a full-time job, but because she gets sick without notice, and I have to realize it on the day of, I have to call work and tell them, ‘I’m going to be late’ or ‘I can’t go to the office today.’  
 
It’s fine once or twice. But when that keeps building up, even if the boss doesn’t say anything and neither do your colleagues, you can’t help but feel guilty."
 
Kim’s only option was to seek legal help.  
 
"I could only ask the Korea Legal Aid Corporation," Kim said. "For the first six months, they told me that realistically, there was no way for me [to register my daughter] and that I had to find her mother. But I met a counselor who told me he will look into it and call me. He told me to wait, but I had no expectations.  
 
But he worked for two to three days without going home and he told me he found a way. It would mean that the baby would have to make their own name and origin and a new family relations register so that they can be recognized as a Korean citizen. Then we would have to legally prove that we were father and daughter in a separate legal process."
 
After learning about Kim’s story, Rep. Seo Yeong-kyo helped put forward an amendment to the Act on the Registration of Family Relations to allow fathers to register their children if they don’t know the mother’s name, whereabouts or contact information. But even with this amendment, fathers still have to file a lawsuit to register their children. Experts estimate there are more un-registered children of single fathers than those that are registered.
 

In January this year, an 8-year-old girl was murdered by her mother. In Korea, a child born to a married woman can only be registered as her husband’s child, even if the husband is not the biological father. The mother refused to register the child because she was married to a man who was not her daughter’s biological father. The child’s death certificate reads, “unnamed.”  
 
Soon after, the child’s biological father took his own life. In a text to his brother, the father said he couldn’t live with the guilt of not being able to protect his daughter. Would that little girl be alive today if she had been in the legal care of her biological father?  
 
Kim Ji-hwan, right, and his daughter Sa-rang, at the National Assembly in Yeouido, southwestern Seoul, on Feb. 25, to visit Rep. Seo Young-kyo. [JEON TAE-GYU]

Kim Ji-hwan, right, and his daughter Sa-rang, at the National Assembly in Yeouido, southwestern Seoul, on Feb. 25, to visit Rep. Seo Young-kyo. [JEON TAE-GYU]

 
Kim and Seo continue to work together to try and break down each barrier single fathers face. For now, they’re focused on making it easier for fathers to register their children if the mother doesn’t cooperate. Their ultimate goal is to give fathers the same rights to register their children as mothers have.  
 
Lawmaker Seo Young-kyo right, and Kim Ji-hwan, left. [JEON TAE-GYU]

Lawmaker Seo Young-kyo right, and Kim Ji-hwan, left. [JEON TAE-GYU]



"Even when the mother is there but she refuses to register the child, we should make it possible for fathers to register the child with DNA testing – this is the gist of the new amendment," said Seo. "Then the more I thought about it, it seemed too complicated and I thought, ‘Why not just make it possible for either the mother or father to register the child?’ If we just add the word ‘father’ into the law, then there would be no pain in this world. That’s how we came to put forward this amendment."
 
"People who know both me and Rep. Seo know that we’re still sad to see a lawsuit has to take place, even if it’s just one," said Kim. "But as we said, the amendment will include children and cases who were not protected by the 2015 amendment. This will at least allow fathers to face the minimum legal battle necessary for registration.  
 
This is not a law for single fathers, but for their children. This is about their right to survive."
 
"We should determine whether a family is healthy or normal by how it functions, not by how a family is defined or what members of the family are there or not," said Kim. "That question is wrong. If the family members trust and support each other and are good influences on each other, then that should be considered a normal family."
 

BY JEON TAE-GYU [jeon.taegyu@joongang.co.kr]
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