By Lee Tae-hoon
The government plans to permit dual citizenship to Koreans who have acquired another nationality, as well as foreigners who have married a Korean or lived here for five years, a senior Justice Ministry official said.
Korea has scrapped its original plan to offer dual citizenship only to Korean adoptees and foreigners with outstanding talents, said Cha Gyu-geun, head of the ministry's Nationality and Refugee Division.
The ministry has nearly completed the new bill which would overhaul the Naturalization Law, Cha said.
The proposed legislation will be publicly announced in two weeks and will likely be voted on in February at an extraordinary session of the National Assembly, according to Cha.
Both ruling and opposition parties do not deny on the need of passing the revision as it would not only protect the rights of minorities, but also attract talents and woo new voters.
Currently, Korea does not permit multiple nationalities for either its citizens or foreigners.
Pledging Loyalty to Korea
The bill would allow people who meet a certain criteria to have dual nationality, upon the submission of a document pledging loyalty to Korea and vowing not to exercise rights as a foreign national while staying here.
Foreigners who have a Korean spouse or lived in the country for five consecutive years would need to pass a naturalization test to obtain a Korean passport.
Currently, they have to renounce their original nationality within six months after naturalization, a major stumbling block that deters foreigners from seeking Korean citizenship.
Under the current law, Korean nationals who obtain citizenship of another country before turning 20 years old have to renounce one nationality before they are 22. Those who get dual nationality after 20 must choose one nation within two years.
Anyone who does not make a choice within a certain period of time loses their Korean nationality, in some cases without their knowledge.
Compulsory Volunteer Work?
Cha denied a recent media report that the ministry is considering demanding women complete a two-year volunteer assignment or military service on the condition of granting dual citizenship.
"Given that women are exempted from military duty in Korea, such a decision would provoke a strong backlash," Cha said. "The measure was once briefly discussed a long time ago, but the government is no longer considering it."
As many highly skilled Koreans have opted to remain overseas after finishing their study abroad, Korea has been suffering from a brain drain.
The majority of dual nationals from advanced countries, such as the United States, abandon Korean nationality when they are asked to pick only one.
"The country is rapidly heading to an aging society. If it wants to maintain national competitiveness, Korea can no longer afford to lose talented people, who are reluctant to abandon their foreign citizenship," Cha said.
Of the Koreans who earned doctorate degrees in engineering in the United States, 31.3 percent remained there after graduating between 1996 and 1999, and 46.3 percent stayed between 2000 and 2003, according to the ministry.
Cha notes that one of the main collateral benefits of the new measure is that it prevents foreigners from being stateless people in case their Korean citizenship is annulled.
If the revised bill is passed, foreigners who have married a Korean will also be able to become Korean without having to renounce their original citizenship.
Of 1.15 million foreigners in Korea, at least 200 have become stateless because they abandoned their original citizenship to gain a green card here, and lost the Korean one as well on charges of sham marriages, according to the ministry.
Cha said the measure will encourage 20,000 Chinese living in Korea for several generations to naturalize.
The majority of the Chinese have refused to be naturalized because they strongly insist on keeping their original citizenship to maintain their cultural identity and keep relations with their ancestral homeland.
Foreigners who have maintained an address in Korea for five consecutive years or more will also be eligible for dual citizenship.
They will be required to have assets or skills sufficient enough to make a living here, and pass a test on basic Korean communication skills and knowledge of its customs and culture.
As of early this year, more than 23,000 people were on the waiting list for the test. Some wait for up to two-and-a-half years. In an effort to expedite the immigration process, the ministry has been administering the test to 3,000 aspiring Koreans every month since July.
The number of people who have lost or renounced their nationality has increased to 1.8 million since 2002, far surpassing the current 83,000 naturalized or newly reinstated Korean citizens, according to the ministry.
Exceptionally Talented Foreigners
Foreigners deemed to have exceptional talents and who can contribute to national development would qualify for Korean citizenship right away. They do not have to fulfill domestic residential requirements or pass the naturalization test.
The only requirement for them will be making a pledge that they will fulfill their duties as a Korean and give up the privileges as a foreigner while living here.
Aggressive steps are being taken by developed countries to attract the necessary human resources with open-door policies.
The net brain inflow into OECD countries rose from 1 percent in 1990 to 1.6 percent in 2000, and the highly educated increased from 31.2 to 35.4 percent, according to the ministry.
Nearly 100 countries permit multiple citizenship. Israel has allowed dual nationality to reinforce solidarity among Israelis living abroad and encourage them to return to their motherland since its modern state was founded in 1948.
In the United States, a child born in the country is given American citizenship at birth. It is estimated that several millions possess multiple nationality, including Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He has been a U.S. citizen since 1983, and has retained his Austrian citizenship during his service as governor of California.
Even Germany, which has a very restrictive nationality law, does grant dual citizenship under certain circumstances. The estimated number of holders of dual citizenship is around 2 million in the Western European country.
Solution for Aging Society
Korea's birthrate stands at 1.13, one of the lowest in the world, according to the National Statistical Office. By 2050, the population is projected to decline by 6.41 million and the proportion over 65 will be the highest among OECD countries.
The economically active population, aged between 15 and 64, is also expected to fall at a rate of 4 million every 10 years until 2050.
"The original revision bill, announced in May, did not sufficiently address difficulties weaker members of society are facing and lacked measures to prevent Korea from becoming an aging society," Cha said. "The new bill will seek stronger measures that enhance social integration, protect human rights of minorities and help the country cope with the declining workforce and low birthrate."
A 2008 survey conducted by the ministry finds that more than 71 percent of Koreans approved of dual citizenship to a certain extent.
Toward Multicultural Society
Strict nationality regulation has been a major obstacle in attracting foreign talent and a source of inconvenience for expatriates in Korea's increasingly multicultural society.
As of September this year, the number of foreigners in Korea reached 1.15 million, or 2.3 percent of the entire population, the ministry said.
"The number of foreign residents has increased 2.75 times over the past 10 years," said a ministry official. "If the trend continues, Korea will see a foreigner population of roughly 1.6 million by 2012."
With regard to suffrage, the official said that the ministry is considering banning dual citizens from casting ballots until they meet a minimum year of residency requirement.
Most migrant workers from developing countries are allowed to work in Korea for only three years, making it very difficult for them to meet the five-year residency requirement for Korean citizenship.
Korea has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the Employment Permit System (EPS) with countries which send some 70,000 migrant workers to Korea each year.
However, their employment contract period cannot exceed one year and they can renew the contract only within the limit of three years from the entry date to Korea.