Your country doesnt trust you
Here’s a riddle: If all men under 35 with dual citizenship must do national service, who among them may choose not to without being punished?
Answer: the foreigners. Huh?
Yes, under the new dual nationality law, some young men with Korean and foreign citizenship must do national service, while other young men with Korean and foreign citizenship don’t have to. Double huh?
To use more familiar terms, an ``ethnic Korean” with Korean and, say, American nationality can no longer avoid the mandatory 21-month stint in the armed forces. A non-Korean who adopts Korean nationality, on the other hand, can.
If a nation is an ``imagined community” of strangers, as the scholar Benedict Arnold put it, this inequality highlights the distinguishing feature of the Korean nation ― race. Not everyone with a Korean passport is really considered Korean.
This country is hardly unique in this, but it does have a habit of undermining itself by its failure to clear such contradictions from its laws.
Consider this a legal pile-up caused by unresolved objectives. Under the previous law, adult Koreans could not be citizens of other countries. Children could but upon reaching adulthood, had to choose one and drop the other(s). Many young men chose the foreign option to avoid conscription. The government wanted to change this. Now they can keep both, but to do so, men must do what every other Korean man must do and join the forces.
At the same time, the government is keen to attract ``foreign talent” ― business types, artists, footballers, potential Olympians ― for whom national service is a disincentive. So, they don’t need to do it if they opt for Korean citizenship.
Thus in stopping Koreans from evading their duty, the law now discriminates against them.
When it comes to a career in the military, though, both types of dual citizen are treated equally. Neither may serve, because authorities fear they may spy.
Here’s the message: Koreans with other passports, you’re not patriots; foreigners becoming Korean, you’re not either but we don’t expect you to be; your country doesn’t trust you.
I see two ways out of this. First, the government should give up the idea of proactively attracting foreign talent to win more medals in the Olympics. Let’s take a different attitude and embrace anyone of good standing who wishes to participate in the Korean dream. Part of that for young men means doing national service.
Instead of aiming at people who have already made it and ``hiring” them as professional Koreans to immediately benefit the nation, how’s about opening to the natural would-be immigrants ― people suffering from economic hardship who wish to move here? They too will contribute. Future leaders will come from their ranks. It’s just that it will take longer and the current administration won’t get the credit for it.
Second, let’s get modern and drop this distinction between ``ethnic Koreans” and others and emphasize citizenship and equality before the law. In this way, South Korea, as distinct from the Nazis to our north, will place itself firmly on the right side of one of the biggest issues of the last century ― race.
But it requires champions willing to engage in public debate for it involves delusion-busting. When I ask people what an ethnic Korean is, they know. It’s someone from the Korean race. The problem here is that there is no such thing as the Korean race, any more than there is a Scottish race or a Ghanaian race.
Korea is a country, not a racial group. Therefore, an ``ethnic” Korea is one who shares a common heritage and ancestry (and language, even if he can’t speak it) with other ``Koreans.” When you bring this down to law that could be explained to an alien, it has to refer to citizenship.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.