Chief of Overseas Koreans Foundation downplays possibility of political dispute
Kim Kyung-keun, president of the Overseas Koreans Foundation (OKF), speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at his office in Seoul, Friday. In the interview, the OKF cheif called for more effective voting methods for overseas Korean residents. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
By Chung Min-uck
The head of a governmental body in support of overseas Koreans called for more effective voting methods for overseas Korean residents ahead of their first-time electoral participation.
“Overseas Koreans have high expectations for the April general election. But they are hoping for a voting via mail or the Internet as the current system is too much a burden for them,” said Kim Kyung-keun, president of the Overseas Koreans Foundation (OKF), in an interview with The Korea Times, Friday.
Under the current election law, the ethnic Koreans need to cast their ballots by visiting polls established by local diplomatic offices of the government.
To many Koreans living abroad, it is difficult to participate in the elections as such diplomatic offices are usually far away from their residences.
They are also required to visit and pre-register with those offices for actual voting.
Due to the obvious inefficiency, just above 3 percent of the 2.23 million eligible overseas voters have registered for the April parliamentary elections with less than two weeks before the deadline, according to the National Election Commission.
Registration is due close on Feb. 11.
“Around 15,000 Americans living in Korea and U.S. soldiers vote in their national elections through air-mail. Japan is following suit,” said Kim. “If there are no arguments concerning its legitimacy and fairness, mail or Internet voting should be allowed.”
At present, a revised bill permitting overseas voting through mail is still pending at the National Assembly’s related committee due to a possible problem of proxy voting.
“I understand that lawmakers are really cautious about allowing mail voting. People should understand that each country is influenced differently by voting in terms of size. For example, in the case of Japan, voting is less influential than Korea in forming its government as it only conducts a parliamentary election,” said Kim.
“So it is not right to say that we need to adopt the measure just because other countries are doing it. Korea still does not allow mail voting even domestically.”
Concerning the request of installing circuit polling stations, the career diplomat disagreed, citing the issue of national sovereignty.
“China does not allow displaying any signs of voting outside the Korean Embassy (in China),” said Kim.
“It is also saying that voting should be done only inside the embassy. We should consider the circumstances of other nations. It can be seen as political interference.”
The OKF head explained that since China doesn’t have a voting system, it fears foreigners’ voting practices in its land can affect the Chinese people to call for their right to vote.
Are overseas residents really qualified to vote?
The Constitutional Court originally ruled that it was lawful to exclude overseas Koreans from domestic elections. However in 2007, the court reversed its own ruling, giving way for overseas Koreans to exercise their right to vote.
The National Assembly then revised the related laws in 2009, granting voting rights to overseas residents with Korean nationality.
Still questions remain over whether they are really qualified for the voting right as they are exempted from basic duties as a national in terms of tax payment and military duty.
Yet, the OKF chief denied the claims.
“There are overseas Koreans who have completed military duty and who have their personal property in Korea and therefore pay taxes,” said Kim.
“There are domestic residents who have not fulfilled their military duties and do not pay taxes but still have the right to vote. So it is hard to rate the overseas Koreans with one standard.”
Under the law, overseas Koreans eligible to vote are permanent resident card holders, people on temporary overseas stays and students studying abroad.
Among them, permanent residents are only allowed to have their votes counted for proportional representatives as they have no registered address in the nation’s local electoral districts.
“The current election law already reflects those worries,” said Kim.
Expansion of domestic political dispute
Asked about a possible domestic partisan dispute’s spillover to overseas Korean societies after the settlement of the new election system, Kim denied the speculation.
“I don’t think there will be any division in overseas Korean communities over domestic politics,” said Kim.
“The first generation of Korean immigrants cared about politics in their homeland as they had lived in Korea and had hard times settling down in foreign lands. But the second and the third generations are different. They are less interested in Korean politics since they can better assimilate into the mainstream,” said Kim.
He also added that there are many countries that prohibit foreigners to participate in political activities.
“The overseas Koreans have to abide by the law of their place of residence. And again there is Korean law. In some cases, people who have Korean nationality have to obey Korean law even if they live in foreign countries. (The political activities) all need to be done under legal limitations,” said Kim.
Role of OKF
In charge of over 7.2 million overseas Koreans with the number still rising, the role of the OKF will likely grow and diversify in the future.
Affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, its engagement in politics is restricted under the election law. But it is still open to listen to and respond to any complaints from overseas Korean communities in dealing with the voting system, Kim said.
“The difference between overseas residents of Korea and other countries is that we have a large number of Koreans and eligible voters abroad. So I guess there can be many problems concerning overseas voting in the future,” said Kim.
“What needs to be supplemented should be done as we carry on with overseas voting. Basically, I agree that people with Korean nationality should have the right to vote no matter where they are,” said Kim.
Established in 1997, the OKF has been carrying out a variety of projects to enhance the relationship between the mother country and overseas communities.
This year, the OKF is to focus on lending financial support to Korean language schools overseas so that the second and third generations of Koreans maintain their identities as Koreans.
The organization is also poised to launch the “Global Korean Network” that helps ethnic Koreans exchange information and increase interchange, eventually strengthening the network of Koreans all over the globe.
Who is Kim Kyung-keun?
By Chung Min-uck
Kim Kyung-keun was inaugurated as president of the Overseas Koreans Foundation (OKF) in October, 2011.
Before assuming the post, he served as consul-general at the Korean Embassy in New York from 2007 to 2010.
From 2002 to 2005, he served as the Korean ambassador to Jordan.
The distinguished career diplomat joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1974.
Kim says that his extensive experience as a diplomat has helped him to handle his leadership role at the organization.
“A nation’s diplomacy basically includes the task of protecting and supporting its overseas residents,” he said.
“Experience in diplomatic affairs is a must in carrying out tasks at the OKF.”