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Responses Mixed Over Suffrage for Koreans Abroad

Posted February. 02, 2009 09:54,   


○ Opportunity to upgrade Korean politics?

George Washington University professor Park Yoon-sik says, “First-generation Korean immigrants in the United States retaining their Korean nationality mostly welcome the latest measure since they have great affection and interest in their home country.”

“It could provide an opportunity for Korean politicians to become global leaders since they will begin to take interest in the political needs of Korean immigrants.”

Han Jong-woo, a political science professor at Syracuse University, said, “I feel like I now have my basic right as a citizen back because I have never had the opportunity to vote since I came to the U.S. to study in 1985.”

Kim Han-il, a reporter for the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, immigrated to Japan but retains Korean nationality. “As a Korean immigrant in Japan lacking the right to vote, this is the first time I have had my suffrage rights. I feel I’ve finally become a responsible adult,” he said.

“I believe the Korean government’s decision will give second- and third-generation Korean immigrants in Japan the opportunity to feel a sense of belonging to their home country.”

Many overseas Koreans said they can realize their long-cherished hope of casting a vote. Jeong Hyo-gwon, chairman of the Korean Residents’ Society in China, said, “Though Koreans living in China pay taxes like citizens, we do not have the right to vote. We are only half citizens in China.”

“Many of us have immense interest in politics at home, something which was vividly illustrated by the staggering 40,000 to 50,000 Koreans who returned home to vote in the 17th presidential election at the end of 2007 even if their flights cost them 400,000 to 500,000 won (280 to 362 dollars) each. Therefore, the measure has allowed us to realize our long-cherished hope of participating in politics back home.”

Lee Jin-myeong, a professor at Lyon 3 University in France, said, “Those that did not acquire French nationality automatically renew their permit for a 10-year stay every decade. Nonetheless, they cannot vote without French citizenship.”

He welcomed Korea’s suffrage decision, saying, “Many Koreans living in France cannot vote either in Korea or France. The latest measure finally allows many of them to exercise their rights as a citizen.”

Some say the measure is an opportunity to upgrade Korean politics.

Ji Ho-cheon, chairman of the Korean Residents’ Society in Moscow, said, “To our dismay, many of our Russian friends kept on asking what was wrong with Korean politics when violent clashes broke out at the National Assembly at the end of last year.”

“Now that we have the right to vote, we can teach those politicians how such nearsighted behavior can deal a devastating blow to Korea’s reputation in the global community.”

○ Fears over division in o’seas Korean communities

Some have warned that Korea’s “divided political culture” could also drive a wedge in overseas Korean communities. Given that something as simple as selecting a chairman of a community creates a great deal of noise, they say overseas Koreans might get divided over presidential and general elections depending on which region they come from.

Many Korean immigrants in the United States said Korean politics could create division in overseas Korean communities. Political parties are likely to set up offices in cities with big ethnic Korean populations such as New York and Los Angeles, and Korean immigrants might draw regional and ideological lines.

One Korean American said, “Animosity already abounds over top positions in these communities. The measure will only worsen such tension. Another huge concern is how to maintain impartiality of the votes.”

An immigrant in Los Angeles said, “Korean immigrants, however small their number, could hold the casting votes in close elections. Those who stayed in the U.S. for a long time do not understand Korea’s political reality; all they have is superficial information from the Web. It is doubtful whether their participation will mean anything.”

Seok Sang-joon, chairman of the Beijing offices of the Korea-China Cultural Association and the Korean Residents’ Society in China, said, “Koreans living in China could split depending on which candidate they support.”

Other critics are questioning the decision to allow non-taxpayers to vote. Kim Dong-seok, director of the Korean-American Voters Council in New York and New Jersey, said, “Compared to other Asian immigrants, Korean immigrants have relatively low English proficiency and understanding of American culture. Their lives are still home country-oriented. But those with permanent residency should lead their lives in the U.S. Therefore, it is undesirable for them to be divided over political matters at home.”

“Participating in politics at home could divide Korean immigrant communities when they should really be focused on working and advocating their rights in the U.S. It makes no sense for them to vote in Korean elections without paying tax in Korea.”

○ Pending Challenges

Several regions have unique problems in suffrage. Seo Won-cheol, international director for Mindan, or a group of ethnic Korean residents in Japan, said, “It is highly likely that Japanese right wingers, who have opposed granting Korean residents in Japan the right to vote in local elections, could further toughen their stance on our demand, which has been Mindan’s top priority.”

“Korean residents in Japan could get engulfed in the political division back home, which might push them into confusion.”

Once overseas Koreans are granted the right to vote, logistics is a key task. Two of the top priorities are monitoring elections to prevent vote rigging and setting up ballot boxes. In China, with offices of the Korean government located in nine regions, there is little room to set up enough polling stations to accommodate the 700,000 Korean voters dispersed over 9.6 million square kilometers.

Kim Hee-cheol, a non-governmental delegate of the committee on policies on overseas Koreans and former chairman of the Korean Residents’ Society in China, said, “A study should be conducted on how Korean residents in China can vote whether at regional offices of the society or through mail or the Web.”