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Korean gov't hints at depriving non-citizens of right to vote

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Justice minister vows to reform system based on principle of reciprocity

By Jung Min-ho

The Ministry of Justice is mulling over revising Korea's voting system, possibly taking away the voting rights of non-citizens in local elections, according to Minister Han Dong-hoon.

Only two weeks prior to the June 1 local elections, Kim Eun-hye, then the Gyeonggi gubernatorial candidate of the ruling People Power Party, said giving non-citizens the right to vote is unfair as most Koreans living overseas do not enjoy the same right.

Her message was aimed at then rival candidate Kim Dong-yeon, who was campaigning at an event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Korea-China diplomatic relations in front of many Chinese F-5 visa (permanent residency) holders in Suwon.

She lost by just 8,900 votes in the election for the post that governs more than 13.5 million residents. That was far fewer than the 50,000 votes of permanent residents of foreign nationality, mostly Chinese, in the province.

The result can be seen as an example of F-5 permanent resident visa holders possibly swinging the balance in local elections. Their influence could grow in the future as Korea may have to allow more immigrants to enter and fill a labor void left by a shrinking population.

Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon / Newsis
Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon / Newsis

"Our citizens do not have the right to vote in those countries (the United States, Canada and France among others), (but) people from those countries may end up having the right here. Giving foreigners the right to vote without considering the principle of reciprocity may distort the will of the people," the justice minister told reporters Thursday, vowing to "rectify" the system.

According to the current election law in Korea, F-5 visa holders can vote in elections for local government positions, such as governors and mayors, if three years have passed since they acquired their visas. More than 126,000 people falling into that category were eligible to vote in the latest local elections. Among them, Chinese nationals accounted for nearly 79 percent, followed by Taiwanese (8.4 percent), Japanese (5.7 percent), Vietnamese (1.2 percent) and Americans (0.8 percent).

Han said one of the most problematic parts of the current system is that, once non-citizens gain the right to vote, they can exercise it while living outside of Korea through overseas voting. To address the issue, he added, the ministry is reviewing whether to adopt a rule requiring F-5 visa holders to reside in Korea for a certain period of time to maintain their status.

But Han did not elaborate on what the reforms based on the "principle of reciprocity" would mean. If the National Assembly approves the proposal, most residents of foreign nationality in Korea will lose their right to vote here.

In 2005, the Assembly passed a bipartisan bill to grant non-citizens the right to vote as part of efforts to press the Japanese government to give the same right to "Zainichi" Koreans. After World War II, the ethnic Koreans living in Japan lost Japanese nationality, but were given the right to stay there permanently. They still do not have the right to vote.

Little did the Korean politicians know what the law could mean for them 20 years later. Outside of the countries of the European Union and the Commonwealth of Nations, Korea is one of the few that guarantees non-citizens the right to vote.

Under Han, the ministry is preparing to establish a new government agency for immigration policies. He said he would stick to the principle of reciprocity, while setting up a reasonable and fair system for everyone who wishes to come to Korea.

"While making good use of immigrants' voluntary and dynamic contributions to the national economy and interest, [policymakers] should address the concerns [over possible problems caused by the change] with policy support," he said.

Jung Min-ho

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