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[Opinion] Suffrage for Overseas Koreans

Posted October. 17, 2008 07:08,   


A Korean student in Washington flew back to Seoul a day before the Korean presidential election in December 2002. Being a member of the pro-Roh Moo-hyun group "Rohsamo,” he voted for the then presidential candidate Roh and flew back to the United States. Roh might have won the election because of staunch supporters like the student. Koreans residing abroad might soon not need to catch an international flight to vote in the next presidential or general elections. The National Election Commission is planning to amend election law to allow absentee balloting.

The election watchdog’s measure follows the Constitutional Court’s ruling in June last year that it is unconstitutional to deny suffrage to overseas Koreans and sailors. This issue has been hotly contested by the political circle. When politicians meet Koreans on foreign soil, they agree that Koreans abroad should be able to vote. No Korean political party has taken the initiative, however, because it is hard to predict whether the consequences will make them smile or cry. The election commission says that among three million Koreans abroad, excluding those holding foreign citizenship, 1.34 million would vote in absentia. Given that the difference in votes between the top two candidates of the presidential elections was 390,000 in 1997 and 570,000 in 2002, politicians cannot certainly overlook the power of 1.34 million voters abroad.

The main opposition Democratic Party was active in urging amendment of election law in the past, but the ruling Grand National Party has taken charge of the matter. Ruling party floor leader Hong Joon-pyo was also deeply involved in asking the Constitutional Court to rule on the constitutionality of overseas voters last year. His party believes that overseas Koreans favor the ruling party for its strong conservative inclination. Certain members, however, have expressed concerns, saying the conservative party has more to lose in the 2012 presidential election since many overseas Koreans are from the Jeolla provinces.

Once overseas Korean residents gain the right to vote, politicians and political parties will inevitably pay more attention on them. It will be a matter of time before their long-cherished wish of establishing a presidential or prime ministerial committee or office catering to them is realized. Koreans in countries with a large Korean population will also have a good chance to become lawmakers under the proportional representative system. Challenges and homework remain, however, as it will be difficult to oversee voters abroad and the excessive interest in Korean politics among overseas Koreans could split Korean communities abroad.

Editorial Writer Kwon Soon-taek (maypole@donga.com)