One Zainichi Korean filed a lawsuit to renounce his South Korean nationality, was denied and is still tryingBy Park Hyun-jung, Hankyoreh 21 staff reporter His father had turned his back on the world. It all happened quite suddenly. Then, on his way to file a death notice for that father, the twelve-year-old boy found himself facing a situation he never saw coming: he didn’t officially exist. There were no documents at all to certify his parents’ marriage, or his own birth. Where did his roots lie? His grandfather was born over a century ago in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province. He traveled to Jiandao, Primorsky Krai, and Sakhalin in search of work, before finally heading over to Hokkaido. His long journey ended when he settled down in Japan’s Shimane Prefecture. There, around 90 years ago, the father was born. The boy’s mother was also a Korean, having made the voyage to Japan at a very young age. At the time, Koreans were considered Japanese subjects. It was after World War II that the country stripped the Koreans and Taiwanese living within its boundaries of their Japanese citizenship. When filling out foreigner registration documents, the father gave his nationality as “Chosun,” or “Korean.” In the meantime, two governments, in South and North, were established on the Korean Peninsula.
In 1965, the military government in Seoul normalized relations with Tokyo. The boy turned eight that year. His father, now working for the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan), began listing his nationality as “South Korean.”
It‘s impossible to raise a son without documents. It took two years, but the mother finally got the documents in order. The three characters of the boy’s name were spelled out on the father’s family register: “Ko Kang-ho.” The boy then had South Korean nationality. He hadn’t wanted the change; he hadn’t wanted to become Japanese either. When the family decided to naturalize as Japanese citizens, he was the one who held them back. Like other Koreans living in foreign lands, he suffered from identity confusion. He thought that identity was something he recognized in himself, not something he looked for from a country, be it the Republic of Korea or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Nationality was just a “symbol.” Fifty-four years old. Now middle-aged, the son still felt the same. He decided to speak out about the thoughts he’d had over the years. His mother was gone by then. In 2011, Kang-ho filed with the Ministry of Justice to renounce his citizenship. He was forfeiting all rights and responsibilities as a South Korean. But the government would not accept the request. By the terms of the Nationality Act, the only people who can renounce South Korean citizenship are people who have multiple nationalities or have gained foreign citizenship. An attached explanation said it was part of an effort to reduce the number of stateless individuals. Kang-ho currently lives in Japan as a “Special Permanent Resident”, as a Zainichi Korean according to the terms of San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951. If he gave up his South Korean citizenship, he would not be a citizen of any country. But he was a man who would not back down. He filed suit with Seoul Administrative Court, asking for the rejection to be overturned. He argued that it was a violation of basic rights to allow only people with multiple nationalities to renounce citizenship. The lawsuit was completely without precedent. In March 2012, the court in the first trial rejected it, ruling that a person had a right to a nationality, but not to become stateless. The appeals court reached the same conclusion. Attorney Lee Seok-tae, who filed the suit on Ko’s behalf, continued to appeal to the Supreme Court, calling the measures “a restriction on the freedom to abandon nationality without any consideration of concrete circumstances, at a time when various basic rights are being recognized in other countries without regard for citizenship, such as freedom to relocate.” According to the European Convention on Nationality, which went into effect in 2001, people are allowed to renounce citizenship when “there is a lack of a genuine link between the State Party and a national habitually residing abroad (Article 7)”. Ko Kang-ho’s case is similar. But in late 2012, the Supreme Court dismissed his appeal. He had taken the fight to court and lost. “Laws reflect the values of that society,” he said. “I didn’t really expect to win the case.” Why, then? He had questions he wanted to pose to the Republic of Korea: How did it treat Zainchi Koreans in Japan? What kind of country is South Korea today? What is its dream for unification? [“Both the North and South Korean governments claim Zainichi Koreans as their own nationals, but it’s only recently that they’ve been pushing that policy seriously. When you consider that both have long taken an approach of neglecting their own people, there’s no reason a Zainichi Korean should belong to either system.” - from a statement by Ko Kang-ho] In the heart of Kyoto, Japan’s capital for a thousand years, many traditional homes can still be found in the narrow alleys around Nijo Castle, a World Heritage Site where Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa is believed to have stayed. The house, bearing a nameplate reading “Ko Kang-ho/Lee Mi-o,” was built about 90 years ago. On Feb. 11, a Hankyoreh reporter pushed against the wooden slat gate. It let out a knocking sound as it moved to the side. Beyond the roughly two-meter-wide doorway, a third-story roof that had not been visible outside suddenly hove into view. Sunlight shone down on the kitchen through a square hole at its top: fermented soybean paste, green tea, safflower. On the refrigerator and the wall by the sink were various pasted memos in Korean and Japanese. The doorway to the left of the kitchen led up to another door. In a bookcase next to the kitchen table was a complete collection of all sixteen volumes in South Korean novelist Pak Kyung-ni’s “Land” series. Familiar items, in an unfamiliar setting. “Welcome.” The voice that rang out was high and gentle. This was Kang-ho’s wife Ri Mi-oh, 55. A doctor of respiratory medicine, she treats patients with terminal cancer at a hospital in Kobe, a city in nearby Hyogo Prefecture. The date of the visit happened to be a national holiday: National Foundation Day, commemorating the accession of Japan’s first emperor Jimmu. Other holidays include Showa Day, which honors the birthday of the late emperor Hirohito, and the Emperor’s Birthday, for current emperor Akihito. Kang-ho, who has run a dental clinic for over two decades in Otsu, a city in Shiga Prefecture, did not take the day off for holidays connected with the Japanese imperial family. Similar round faces, similar friendly smiles - the couple even had similar jobs. They almost looked like brother and sister. About ten years ago, a swollen-faced Ri was recommended to Kang-ho’s clinic by a friend after a bad tooth diagnosis. The treatment was good, but he didn’t seem to know much about making money. He didn’t recommend expensive treatments like implants that aren’t covered by insurance. He didn’t accept payment from fellow Koreans, and he offered patients some of his own homegrown vegetables. On Jan. 1 2000, just three months after they met, they were married. It was a wedding between two foreigners living in Japan. Ko Kang-ho knows hardly any Korean. His father hadn’t wanted to send him to one of the Chosun Korean schools operated by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (pro-North Korea Chongryon). But the boy with the Korean name didn’t spend much time with Japanese friends either. Mostly, he just read books and newspapers. He considered going to university in his father’s country, but the household wasn’t well-off financially. In 1976, he enrolled in an engineering college to study ship-making. His plan was to get a job at a South Korean shipyard after graduating and join the organized labor movement. But caring for his widowed mother and younger siblings left him unable to study for the six years after he enrolled. He wondered if there was anything he could do for the Zainichi Korean community. Finally, he changed course and went to dental school. Mi-oh does speak Korean well, as she attended a Chosun school. Her father was a Korean from Jeju, while her mother was Japanese. Her mother had been resolute enough to leave home where her father insisted, “women don’t need to go to university.” Her fateful encounter happened one day while she was studying at the house of her brother, an exchange student in Tokyo. In the yard of a friend’s house, she saw a shabby clapboard home, barely fit for a dog. Inside lived a poor Korean teenager. This was the young man who would become Mi-oh’s father. The grandfather objected, but Mi-oh’s mother went ahead with the wedding. Since they were of two different nationalities, they decided to give their first child Japanese nationality and their second Chosun nationality. Mi-oh was the second daughter. Proud and assertive, she had hopes of leaving Japan someday to live elsewhere. If she left the land where she was born and raised, maybe, she imagined, she could be free. Was there something she could do that would let her become self-sufficient right away, something she could do outside of Japan? A job where she could help others. She finally settled on becoming a doctor. “Chosun” isn’t a recognized nationality. Mi-oh has no passport, and people without passports have a difficult time traveling from one country to another. One substitute for a passport is a document from the Japanese Ministry of Justice permitting “reentry,” which serves as the necessary identification for border crossing. Any overseas travel requires at least two or three months to prepare the necessary documents. But it’s a process that has allowed her to visit the US and the United Kingdom, although she was unable to travel to Ireland. Traveling to South Korea is also a tall order. She has to receive a “travel certificate,” a temporary passport issued by the South Korean government. It was not until 1996, during the administration of President Kim Young-sam, that she was able to set foot in the country. The authorities had permitted her visit after she explained that she wanted to visit her father’s grave in Jeju Island. After he passed away in 1991, it had taken four years for his remains to make their way home. Under the brutal military dictatorship, it was inconceivable for her relatives in Jeju to try to contact the family. Her father was once a member of Chongryon, though she claims he was forced out. In 2010, with the Lee Myung-bak administration in office in South Korea, Mi-oh and a friend paid a visit to the Toji (“Land” as referred to in Pak Kyung-ni’s series) Foundation of Culture in Wonju, Gangwon Province. Stopping in a restaurant during her trip, she saw the Vancouver Winter Olympics being broadcast on TV. “Kim Yu-na’s performance was so beautiful,” she recalled. It was her last memory in South Korea. While Kim Yu-na was going for a second Olympics gold earlier this year, Mi-oh was being prevented from making another trip. She made two consulate visits for the necessary procedures, but her efforts were in vain. “The employee at the consulate told me, ‘You’ve been there ten times now. If you’ve seen what a good country South Korea is, why don’t you change your citizenship? All it takes it one procedure and you won’t have to come here every time anymore,’” she recalled. “And I said, ‘I’m willing to come to the consulate twenty or thirty times if it means I can go to South Korea.‘” Her plight is shared by around 30,000 other people with Chosun nationality in Japan. Her husband Kang-ho decided that he could not sit by in silence any longer. It was one of the reasons he gave for wanting to renounce his South Korean nationality. Please direct questions or comments to [firstname.lastname@example.org] http://h21.hani.co.kr/arti/special/special_general/36714.html