Citizenship and ethnicity in Korea – A few months ago, I wrote an entry dealing with nationality and citizenship, and in this entry I described the Korean attitude toward citizenship as one of convenience, due to the average Korean's perception of the concepts of citizenship and nationality (and by nationality I mean what is also called “ethnicity”). The goal of that entry was not to discuss the concepts of citizenship and nationality in Korea, though, it was to discuss what it meant to be American, and so I turned away from the issue after offering a relatively brief comment.
Lately, however, something in the news has called my attention back to this issue, and that is the furor over dual citizenship holders renouncing their Korean citizenship in order to avoid military service (which is mandatory for all males in Korea). GNP assemblyman Hong Joon Pyo has been calling for full disclosure of a list of those whose children have renounced their citizenship. The underlying issue itself is not news—that is, sons of high-ranking officials and other powerful people in Korea have been finding ways to avoid military service for, well, probably as long as it has been mandatory.
The current controversy, though, began in April, when the National Assembly passed a new citizenship law designed to make it harder for those with dual citizenship to renounce their Korean citizenship in order to avoid military service. Basically, the law is designed to prevent dual citizenship holders who have spent most of their lives in Korea from renouncing their Korean citizenship. Those who live abroad will apparently be unaffected.
After the law was passed, but before it was put into effect yesterday (the 24th), a flood of people renounced their Korean citizenship, reminiscent of a run on the bank when rumors of financial collapse leak out. Prior to the passing of the new law, around two or three dual citizenship holders renounced their Korean citizenship each day, but from the 6th to the 23rd of this month, a total of 1287 people renounced their Korean citizenship here in Korea. From the 6th to the 19th, an additional 533 Koreans renounced their citizenship at overseas consulates (Korean language source).
On the 18th, KBS published the results of an opinion poll that targeted those from age 10 (middle and high school students) to age 60. They received a total of 1002 responses. The full results of the survey are in Korean, and even though the English summary gives you the gist of things, it contains at least one important translation mistake, so I thought I’d provide a quick translation of my own.
Question 1: Since the amendment to the citizenship law passed the National Assembly, the number of people renouncing their citizenship has been increasing. How do you feel about their actions?
- I do not care, as it is their right to do so: 28.0%
- They should be criticized as acting selfishly: 65.3%
- I’m not sure: 6.7%
Question 2: What do you feel is the primary reason that these people are renouncing their citizenship?
- To avoid military service: 57.5%
- Educational issues: 20.9%
- A good living environment overseas: 14.0%
- Problems finding a job: 3.4%
- Other: 4.2%
Question 3: Do you think that the identities of those who renounce their citizenship should be disclosed?
- Their identities should be disclosed: 53.4%
- Their identities should not be disclosed, as it is a matter of personal privacy: 23.2%
- Only the identities of children of public officials should be disclosed: 22.2%
- I’m not sure: 1.3%
Question 4: If the parents of those who renounced their citizenship are public officials, do you think they should have to resign from their positions?
- They have failed to fulfill their obligations as public officials and therefore must resign: 78.9%
- The citizenship of their children is a separate issue, and thus there is no need for them to resign: 17.5%
- I’m not sure: 3.6%
Question 5a: If you were able to choose the citizenship of your child, would you change it to that of America or another developed country?
- I would change it: 30.5%
- I would not change it: 60.8%
- I’m not sure: 8.7%
Question 5b (for those under the age of 20): If you were able to choose your citizenship, would you change it to that of American or another developed country?
- I would change it: 28.6%
- I would not change it: 62.9%
- I’m not sure: 11.4%
Question 6: Do you think that those who have renounced their citizenship should be at a disadvantage when it comes to living or working in Korea?
- Yes: 81.6%
- No: 14.6%
- I’m not sure: 3.8%
Question 7: What do you think should be done if those who have renounced their citizenship wish to restore their Korean citizenship in the future?
- They should be allowed to do so: 34.7%
- They should not be allowed to do so: 57.9%
- I’m not sure: 7.4%
(Even though the English summary of the results uses “nationality” and “citizenship” interchangeably to translate “gukjeok,” I have stuck with “citizenship” here because of the possibility of confusion between “nationality” and “ethnicity.” And in order to avoid that confusion in my discussion, I will use “ethnicity” instead of “nationality” from now on.)
Let’s take a look at these questions one by one to see what they have to say about the Korean perception of the relationship between citizenship and ethnicity. For starters, it should be noted that the current controversy has made the stigma associated with renouncing one’s citizenship even worse, and it is possible that this had an affect on the responses. This is, of course, merely conjecture on my part.
Question 1 is interesting because it pits individual rights (literally “individual freedom” in the original) against selfishness. Why is selfishness the only option? Why couldn’t it be a lack of patriotism? The answer is simple: citizenship is not seen as a requirement of being Korean, and thus has nothing to do with being patriotic or nationalistic.
If you think about it, anyone who renounces their citizenship could be considered selfish. Ultimately, they are putting their own needs ahead of the needs of their home country, whether those needs be related to military service or taxes or just plain participation in society. But let’s look at the choices given in Question 2 as primary reasons for renouncing citizenship: avoiding military service, getting a better education, finding a good living environment, and finding a job. How many people would criticize someone as selfish who renounced their citizenship and naturalized in another country for the last three reasons? Probably no one. The only really selfish reason here is avoiding military service, and it becomes clear that Question 1 was a setup for Question 2—that is, the survey writers (whether consciously or subconsciously) were trying to elicit a certain response for Question 2. The media, at least, appears to be doing its best to fan the flames of the backlash.
Question 3 includes the assumption that public officials are held to a different standard than ordinary citizens, but interestingly enough most of the respondents didn’t buy it. Less than a quarter said that only the identities of public officials should be disclosed, while over half said that the identities of all those who renounced their citizenship should be disclosed, whether their parents are public officials or not. According to this poll, Koreans do not draw the line between public officials and private citizens when it comes to serving their country.
The wording of Question 4 kind of makes me wonder if the pollsters weren’t expecting a higher percentage of people to demand “special treatment” for public officials in Question 3. Nevertheless, it would appear that while Koreans think everyone should be held accountable, public officials do have a greater responsibility given their positions. I’m not surprised at the high percentage here, as public opinion on the subject of the rich and powerful weaseling their way out of military service has always been quite vehement.
The surprising thing about Question 5 is not that young people themselves would be less likely to change their citizenship than their parents would be to do it for them. In fact, the difference in the results here falls within the margin of error for this poll (listed as “± 3.09% variation from 95% reliability”), so at best we can say that the results were similar. But that’s what I find surprising—I would have expected far more parents to say that they would change their children’s citizenship. Again, this is conjecture, but this is where I think the current fervor might have had an effect. Many (if not most) Korean parents would do anything to give their child an edge, and if changing citizenship were one of those things, they would do it in a heartbeat.
Now Question 6 is the one that really gets me. Just in case you didn’t read the English summary I linked to above, here is the sentence that relates to this question and its results: “More than 80 percent of those surveyed overwhelmingly endorsed measures to place non-Korean nationalities at a disadvantage.” Ignore for the moment, if you would, the poor wording (I think they meant: “Of those surveyed, an overwhelming 80 percent endorsed...”) and let’s look at the differences in the actual question and this translation. The question itself refers only to those who renounced their citizenship, while the “translation” refers to all “non-Korean nationalities.” Let me tell you something, bub, I’m already at enough of a disadvantage here—I do not need any more measures to increase that disadvantage, thank you very much.
As a “non-Korean nationality,” I fail to see the need for this question at all. Of course those without Korean citizenship should be at a disadvantage. That’s the way it works all around the world. Citizens get certain advantages that non-citizens don’t get. Except it’s different in Korea, or at least it has been. Why? Because, as I mentioned in my original entry on nationality, one’s citizenship doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not you are considered part of the Korean people (i.e., nation). Koreans with American (or other “developed country”) citizenship are technically foreigners but are still considered Koreans. Yet ask anyone about any of the more well known Westerners who have naturalized here. Are they Koreans? Well, technically they are Korean citizens, but they’re not actually Korean. You can’t become Korean. You are either born Korean or you’re not.
Thus we have what most foreigners (and by that I mean non-Koreans) would consider a ridiculously obvious question. But it has never been obvious here, and the current controversy is bringing this double standard to light. Question 7 is another symptom of the backlash—over half of the respondents said that those who renounced their citizenship should not be allowed to restore it at a future date. Honestly, I’m not sure how it works in the United States or other countries, but I’m guessing that most countries don’t throw going away parties for people who renounce their citizenship. Even if it is possible, I imagine that it would be very difficult to regain your citizenship once you renounce it. This is just conjecture, of course—I won’t pretend to know the legal ins and outs of citizenship laws (although, upon reflection, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to do some research).
What I think this controversy highlights is what everyone knew all along—that citizenship in Korea is pretty much a matter of convenience. But when large amounts of people suddenly tossed their citizenship to the wind because it was inconvenient for them (i.e., it meant they had to serve in the Korean army), I think people started to rethink the issue. It should be obvious that only people of means had the option of renouncing their citizenship to make life easier. The common masses, on the other hand, had no choice but to serve their time in the military. Now they want the people of means to pay the price.
So what does this mean for the perception of citizenship and ethnicity in Korea? I have been saying that citizenship is a matter of convenience here, but to put it another way, ethnicity trumps citizenship. That is, you are an ethnic Korean first and a Korean citizen second. Most Koreans meet both of these conditions and thus don’t give the distinction much thought, but it starts to become obvious when only one of the two conditions is met. Most of the time a person will meet the first condition and not meet the second (i.e., any citizen of another country who is of Korean ancestry), and these people are simply considered “Korean.” Those who meet the second condition but not the first are rarer (i.e., any citizen of Korea who is not of Korean ancestry, like the ones I mentioned above), and these are still thought of as “foreigners,” even if they may legally be Korean.
Even my wife, who has had to put up with my rants on the subject for the past eight years, still has a difficult time with the concept. It is the way she and most other Koreans are wired. I was discussing the issue with her last night, and I said, “So I guess they’re going to start putting non-citizen Koreans at a disadvantage here.” She answered, “Yeah, they’ll be treated just like foreigners.” I laughed and said, “Well, they are foreigners.” After thinking for a moment, she replied, “I guess that’s true.”
The concept of ethnicity trumping citizenship reaches far beyond citizenship laws, and even beyond the way non-citizen ethnic Koreans are treated here. It is the reason why South Koreans call North Koreans “brothers” (dongpo), even though the two countries are technically at war. Citizenship—even citizenship in an enemy nation—is secondary. The idea of the Korean people comes first, and “the Korean people” encompasses all ethnic Koreans. When you understand this, it becomes a little easier to understand the relationship North and South Korea have.
The current controversy, though, has awakened people here to the importance of citizenship. Will citizenship be raised to an even par with ethnicity? Will the effect be permanent? I doubt that things will change overnight. Old traditions and old thinking do indeed die hard. But perceptions (as well as laws) have been changed, even if only slightly. In a country that prides itself on being “ethnically homogenous” (danilminjok), I doubt that citizenship will ever be as important as ethnicity, but I do think it will be more important than it is now, and Koreans won’t treat their citizenship as cavalierly as they have in the past.
I think that this is ultimately a good thing. Ethnic pride is not necessarily evil, but it can be dangerous at times. Ethnicity is something over which an individual has no control, but citizenship is ultimately a choice. If I’m going to be proud of anything, I’d rather be proud of something I’ve chosen to do, rather than something over which I had absolutely no control. I’d like to think that this sort of thinking would lead to a more open and less race-conscious society in Korea, but I wonder if that is not too idealistic. America, for example, is a very diverse nation, and its citizens are exceedingly proud of their citizenship—and yet racism runs rampant. I’d like to end this entry on a positive note, though, so I’ll say that, at the least, I believe this is a step in the right direction. Hopefully Korea will continue in that direction.