First Korean citizenship ceremony for international adoptees. Photo by Marc Champod
A little over a year ago, 13 young adults born in South Korea and raised abroad gathered at a government office outside Seoul to meet the Korean Minister of Justice. The 10 men and three women smiled and waved Korean flags while receiving documents representing Korean citizenship. They were the first international adoptees in the world to regain citizenship in their birth country.
All had spent at least a decade living in the U.S., Canada or Europe and had long relinquished their Korean rights, as dictated by Korean law. But each felt strongly enough about Korea to return and seek citizenship after the country revised its Nationality Law in 2011. Their experiences will likely influence whether other countries with large numbers of international adoptees, such as China and India, will establish their own dual citizenship programs.
The ranks of adopted Korean dual citizens continue to grow. G.O.A.’L. (Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link), a Seoul nonprofit founded and run by adoptees, says 15 adoptees have obtained dual citizenship so far and nine are awaiting government approval. Fourteen other adoptees have expressed interest and are preparing applications, according to Oh Myeong-seok, a Korean American adoptee who oversees G.O.A.’L.’s dual citizenship program. Adoptees hear about the program through word-of-mouth, online searches and referrals from adoption agencies and Korean consulates, says Oh.
Adoptees who have become dual citizens say their new status reflects their hybrid sense of self. “In the past I embraced a Korean identity but wasn’t able to ‘prove’ it by showing a passport or ID,” notes Dae-won Kim, who was adopted to Switzerland at age six. “That’s not an issue any longer.”
Other adoptees, like Keum Yeo Brochet, believe dual citizenship gives them greater mobility as global citizens. The 25-year-old French Canadian says she likes being attached to multiple countries as she maps out her future. “Who knows where I am going to end up, but I like the idea that I could go to France, Canada or Korea and feel like a part of the country, not just a visitor,” says Brochet.
Korea’s dual citizenship program is still evolving. New security measures have extended the time it takes to obtain one prerequisite by several weeks compared to last year. G.O.A.’L. is trying to work with the Korean government to streamline the process.
Applying currently takes about nine months and costs at least $50. Oh says the procedure is similar to the Korean application for gaining citizenship through naturalization. Steps include applying for a special (F-4) visa, an application review by the Korean Ministry of Justice, taking a pledge not to use foreign citizenship in Korea, applying for a Korean Identification Card (akin to a Social Security card) and applying for a Korean passport. Male adoptees must also apply for exemption from military service.
Life as a dual citizen brings its own challenges. Though they are excused from full conscription, some male adoptees will have to participate in annual Korean “civil defense exercises”. Since dual citizens waive their foreign rights in Korea, both males and females may lose access to jobs and scholarships earmarked for foreigners. For the same reason, dual citizens will enjoy only limited protections from their adoptive countries/embassies while in Korea. This aspect of dual citizenship hasn’t been seriously tested yet but has sparked worries among some adoptees and adoptive parents.
Dual citizens may also arouse suspicion when traveling internationally because they carry two passports, one under their Korean name, one under their adopted name. To avoid possible hassles, Brochet no longer connects through the U.S. during Korean flights. “In Korea, they know you have two names but in other countries…if you have to show both your passports, they get quite confused,” she explains.
Both Brochet and Kim advise adoptees to seriously evaluate what they want from dual citizenship. The chief advantages are cheaper medical insurance (Korea has universal healthcare), the right to vote and run for office and easier access to cellphone (subscription) service, credit cards and loans.
Brochet thinks adoptees who don’t live in Korea or visit often should pass up the “long, tiring” dual citizenship process. “It’s great to feel like you belong to the country but honestly, if it’s just for tourism, travelling as a foreigner is just as good,” she notes.
Kim, who lived in Korea for nearly a decade and hopes to retire there, believes citizenship should be reserved for adoptees who have spent a considerable amount of time in Korea and can communicate in Korean. To aid adoptees who aren’t familiar with the country, Kim wants the Korean government to offer special “re-integration” programs. Korea doesn’t currently require dual citizen applicants to take any cultural or language tests.
Reflecting on their first year of dual citizenship, Kim and Brochet tally up more benefits than drawbacks. “The best way to find balance when you are associated with so many cultures is to just embrace all of them and take the best of each,” says Brochet. Kim adds, “Now, I can tell anyone I’m either Swiss or Korean — or both. It’s my own choice rather than having someone else tell me.”
Elizabeth Woyke is a reporter in New York.