Korean Parliamentarians Visit SF Bay Area

Korean Parliamentarians Visit SF Bay Area

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Four members of Korea’s National Assembly met with leaders of Northern California’s Korean community to discuss Korean government policy on overseas Korean citizens on Monday, August 2.

Grand National Party members Kim Choong-whan, Kim Hyo-jae, and Kim Young-woo and Democratic Party member Song Min-soon were in the San Francisco Bay Area in their capacity as members of the National Assembly’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Unification Affairs, the standing committee that oversees the foreign affairs ministry and the government ministry that deals with North Korea.

During their meeting with fourteen local Korean leaders at Sura Restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, the parliamentarians heard concerns and suggestions regarding issues like dual citizenship, overseas voting procedures, and the US-Korea free trade agreement (FTA), which has been negotiated between the two countries but among other hurdles awaits ratification by the US Congress.

Like countries such as Norway, the Republic of (South) Korea has never allowed dual citizenship, although the government has no way of knowing whether a Korean citizen has acquired citizenship elsewhere. Overseas Koreans have long demanded that the government formally allow dual citizenship, but fear that it could make it easier to evade taxes and military conscription has meant that pushing proposals forward has required considerable political courage. Now that overseas citizens have won voting rights in Korean elections, however, parliamentarians will have increased motivation to take action on the matter.

Current proposals include recognizing dual citizenship for gradually expanding groups of people, for example by first allowing it for senior citizens, then foreigners who marry Korean citizens, until the general public grows comfortable with what by many is still seen as the potential to create divided loyalties. Among suggestions the visiting parliamentarians heard was that overseas Koreans be given a greater voice in shaping that policy.

Of immediate concern for Korean citizens abroad has been the next round of elections. The Constitutional Court declared election laws prohibiting overseas voting unconstitutional in 2007, but cited concerns about the logistics of having overseas Koreans participate in the a presidential election later that year in allowing lawmakers to delay implementation. 2010 will see practice votes in countries around the world to test how the system for overseas voting will work in a real election.

In the meantime, Korean communities outside of the country are deeply worried about internal division – it’s hard enough staying united and together without members of the community taking sides and joining competing campaign organizations in their host countries. The concern might seem ironic, since it was overseas Koreans who petitioned the Constitutional Court to allow them to vote in the first place.

“Everyone looks at voting abroad with both expectation and concern,” said Kim Hyo-jae, who represents the Seongbuk area of Seoul. “Sure we’re concerned about division and infighting in overseas Korean communities, no less than all of you are. Voting always means taking sides. As long as you see that as healthy competition and not conflict, it’s a good thing. It’s not as if you can just quit democracy” for fear of discord, he said.

In answer to questions about what the Korean National Assembly is doing about implementing the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA), Song Min-soon, who happened to be involved in the initial FTA negotiations when he was foreign minister under the government of President Roh Moo-hyun, suggested that Koreans don’t look only to Korea when pushing for the agreement.
“Legislators everywhere fear their constituents more than anything else,” said the first-time legislator. “Writing the member of Congress who represents the districts where you live would be more effective,” he said, noting that ratification of the agreement is anything but assured.

Community leaders present for the get-together included the presidents of the Korean-American federations (Haninhoe) of The San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and Monterey, as well as the National Unification Advisory Council, a constitutionally stipulated body of overseas leaders, the San Francisco Korean Chamber of Commerce, the Northern California Korean Drycleaners Association, prominent members of the Korean language news media, and others.

Photo: National Assembly members Song Min-soon, Kim Choong-whan, Kim Hyo-jae, Kim Young-woo speaking to members of the Korean community at Sura Restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland on Monday.