By Lee Tae-hoon
A legal battle is looming over the rights of migrant voters after they launched a political network Thursday with the aim of seeking a greater say in domestic politics.
Under the Public Office Election Law, foreign residents are prohibited from engaging in campaigning and those who do so can be punished with up to three years in prison or a maximum fine of 6 million won.
Korea, which has granted suffrage in local elections to foreigners with permanent resident status since 2006, remains one of the few countries that ban foreigners from campaigning.
Members of the Migrant Voters Alliance, however, said they do not fear such a legal challenge as this will only highlight the problems in Korea's outdated legal system and the unfair treatment they have to endure.
During the inauguration ceremony, they declared five agenda items, including the provision of interpretation services in hospitals and a crackdown on illegal marriage brokers, and pledged to monitor and evaluate whether those elected meet their demands.
"Korea lacks a political system in which foreigners can fully represent themselves and independently participate in the making of policies," Kim Jong-gon, a senior official of the National Election Commission (NEC), said.
Kim said the Election Law has yet to reflect the growing need for the representation of 1.2 million foreign residents here.
Shin Jong-won, executive director of Seoul YMCA, agrees with him, claiming that hardly any of 9,900 candidates running in the June 2 local elections have made campaign pledges that would improve the lives of migrants.
He noted that the upcoming activities of the alliance of migrant voters will be in line with the objectives of the Election Law, but it may inevitably breach some of its clauses that run counter to the basic rights of voters.
"The law is aimed at restricting campaign spending among candidates, while giving a greater voice to the people," Shin said. "Concerns on our activities' possible violation of the rules will help raise public awareness on the importance of revising the current Election Law."
In this regard, the NEC said it will not interfere with the activities of the new migrant group as long as they focus on their ongoing campaign to increate the turnout of migrant voters and avoid supporting particular candidates or parties.
In the forthcoming elections, some 80,000 naturalized Koreans, 12,800 foreigners who have maintained permanent resident status for more than three years, and 58,000 overseas Koreans will be entitled to exercise their right to vote.
The majority of them will be first-time voters, given that the total number of non-Koreans eligible to cast ballots has nearly doubled from 6,726 in 2006, while that of naturalized citizens saw an increase of 52,575 between 2006 and 2009.