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New legislation for dual citizenship signals a new era for Korean adoptees

Kim Yoo-shin regained his Korean citizenship in April, 36 years after he was adopted by a family in the United States when he was one year old. He is one of the first adoptees to benefit from a new Korean law that allows dual nationality.

In other words, Kim is a Korean-American ― and vice versa.

“It means that the Korean government is trying to improve its relationship with overseas Korean adoptees,” Kim said in a recent interview, adding that obtaining dual citizenship means regaining part of his identity while still being able to retain his American heritage.

“It also means that the work of GOA’L and the adoptee community is becoming more visible to the Korean public and recognized by government officials,” he said, using the acronym of the Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link, which had led the campaigned for dual citizenship.
Justice Minister Lee Kwi-nam (front row, center) poses with Korean adoptees who were able to regained Korean citizenship under a new law enacted this year. (Yonhap News)
Justice Minister Lee Kwi-nam (front row, center) poses with Korean adoptees who were able to regained Korean citizenship under a new law enacted this year. (Yonhap News)

Since 1956, more than 200,000 Korean babies and children have been adopted out of the country to over 14 countries around the world, including the U.S., Canada, France, Switzerland, Britain, Belgium and Sweden. International adoption still continues in Korea.

Previously, Korean citizenship was taken away automatically from babies and children who were adopted to foreign homes. This was done without the adoptees’ consent.

“Korean adoptees didn’t leave Korea on their own will,” said Kim Dae-won, former secretary-general of GOA’L and also one of the first adoptees to receive dual citizenship.

“It was necessary for the adoptees to maintain their adoptive country’s citizenship. At the same time, because a lot of adoptees wanted to have Korean citizenship, it was important to have dual citizenship,” he said, explaining why the adoptee group launched the campaign for dual nationality in 2008.

Under a new law that went into effect at the start of this year, every Korean adoptee’s Korean citizenship can be restored because every adoptee had a Korean registry record when he or she was born.

Korean citizenship allows adoptees to obtain credit cards, which foreigners are unable to get. It also allows adoptees to run their own businesses and own property in Korea.

To some, though, dual citizenship creates disadvantages as well as benefits.

Dual citizens carry two passports with two different names ― their Korean passport with their Korean name and their adoptive country’s passport with their adopted name.

“They will possibly also have two different birth dates, so it’s really like having two entirely different identities, which reflects our lives,” Kim said. “That’s also why we wanted to have that, because it does reflect the reality for adoptees, but on a daily basis, it will cause a lot of problems because none of the existing systems are adapted to these kinds of circumstances.”

“So I’m pretty sure the first few hundred adoptees who get dual citizenship will encounter a lot of problems while traveling. As long as everyone keeps their common sense, I think it’s possible to resolve the problems that will come up easily,” he said.

Dual citizenship may have some other disadvantages.

Korean-language scholarships are currently only granted to foreign adoptees.

“That’s one of the difficulties where we feel we should change that discrepancy and have scholarships for any overseas Korean adoptee and not make it dependent on nationality,” Kim said.

GOA’L will also push for integration programs for adoptees who move to Korea to help them learn the language and culture.

Another issue is military service, which is mandatory for all able-bodied South Korean males. Male adoptees who were adopted on a new “orphan family registry” can apply for exemption from military service, but those who were adopted on their original family registry will have to serve.

Public acceptance of adoptees’ Korean nationality, especially for those whose Korean-language ability is limited, is also a potential problem.

“If there are Koreans who don’t speak Korean, of course, in the beginning a lot of Korean nationals will be like, ‘What’s wrong with that person?’” Kim said.

“But I think it’s the same process as with Korean adoptees. A lot of people didn’t understand what that meant, but now there are a lot of people who better understand what a Korean adoptee is.

“That’s one of the tasks that GOA’L has to do in the future ― raise awareness to say there are Korean nationals here, but they don’t speak Korean.”

The only prerequisites for adoptees to obtain dual citizenship are that applications must be submitted in Korea and they must hold an F4 visa. There are no language prerequisites.

Globally, some countries have basic language and cultural tests applicants must pass to obtain citizenship. Should there be similar language and cultural requirements for dual citizenship in Korea?

“As an adoptee, I would say no because we were stripped of our Korean citizenship, so I don’t think it would be right to put up a lot of conditions,” Kim said. 

(Yonhap News)