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South Korea: Permanent Dual Nationality Allowed after 60 Years

(Aug. 24, 2010) On May 4, 2010, the Ministry of Justice of South Korea promulgated the amended Nationality Act, which comes into full effect on January 1, 2011. By passing this amendment, South Korea, for the first time since its founding, has come to recognize permanent dual citizenship of its nationals who satisfy the eligibility requirements under the Act. The amended Act allows a person holding dual citizenship by birth (e.g., a child born to South Korean parents in the United States) to maintain both citizenships by submitting to the Minister of Justice a pledge that he or she will not exercise the non-Korean citizenship in South Korea. Prior to the amendment, a person was forced to choose one citizenship; failure to make a timely choice resulted in deprivation of Korean citizenship without notice. By submitting the same type of pledge, certain groups of foreign nationals may also acquire Korean citizenship while maintaining their original one. The groups include marriage migrants, foreigners of outstanding talent who are naturalized as Koreans, and those who have their Korean citizenship reinstated by meeting certain qualifications. (Nationality Act, Act No. 8892 (Mar. 14, 2008), last amended by Act No. 10275 (May 4, 2010).

Over the past few decades, many Koreans had grown critical of dual citizenship holders, whom they perceived as benefiting from a wide range of privileges while being able to avoid important responsibilities. The most sensitive issues included their exemption from compulsory military service and the favored status they enjoyed in the college entrance process. The media and politicians have boosted this perception by attacking the “immorality” and “lack of allegiance” of the opposition party members or their appointees for public offices whose children had chosen a foreign citizenship over Korean citizenship. The hostile atmosphere gradually changed, however, as South Korea came under the influence of globalization. The need for recognition of dual nationality has come to the fore, and yet the public concerns over inequities remained unresolved. (IN-SEOP CHUNG, JURIDICAL STUDY ON ISSUES RELATED TO DUAL NATIONALITY 135-137 & 142 (Ministry of Justice, 2004).)

Taking into account some of these remaining misgivings, the amended Act stipulates that if a dual citizenship holder’s conduct is found to dishonor the required pledge, through such acts as using a foreign passport to enter South Korea or registering as a foreigner in South Korea, the Minister of Justice will order the person to choose one nationality. A person given such an order must make the choice within six months thereafter; otherwise, he or she will automatically lose Korean citizenship. (Nationality Act, Act No. 8892 (Mar. 14, 2008), last amended by Act No. 10275 (May 4, 2010).)

Furthermore, the amended Act manifestly excludes from the possibility of holding dual citizenship children born during a “birth tour,” i.e., whereby an expectant mother travels overseas, typically to the United States, and returns to Korea right after giving a birth, thereby procuring for the child the tour destination country’s citizenship. Those children must choose one nationality before they reach 22 years of age, unless they are able to prove that the mother was not birth-touring. (Id.)

The Act remains unchanged in regard to persons who voluntarily become foreign nationals after attaining majority; in such cases there is automatic deprivation of their Korean citizenship. (Id.)

Written by Helen Lee, Intern, Law Library of Congress, under the guidance of Sayuri Umeda, Senior Foreign Law Specialist.