First, there are two language barriers: The legal language barrier, as few people really understand the law in their own language, and the Korean-English barrier ― even fewer English speakers are strong enough in Korean to read the laws.
Second, there are profound cultural and philosophical differences about the role of laws and the justice system, the role of the police, and related concepts. And third, the information is often simply out of date. Korean law changes quickly and often, and though some principles seem to endure, the constantly changing details do not make understanding it any easier.
To try to solve these problems, this column will attempt to give you a basic understanding of your legal rights, responsibilities and options in Korea in various contexts and, when appropriate, discuss the implications. If you are curious about a specific area of law, please let us know and we will try to include it in our column. To begin, we are going to address a very common issue for long-term expats ― marriage in Korea.
We would guess that the vast majority of couples in Korea are either not thinking about marriage or are already married. But should you fall into that middle group of couples who are thinking about tying the knot, there are some legal implications and simple procedures of which you should be aware.
First, we should talk about the benefits. Married couples whose income falls below a certain level can receive a government-backed, very low-interest loan for key money or buying a home. There are discounts on cellular and other services, and you are able to file or receive documents for one another, such as lease registrations and tax paperwork. And there is simply no easier way to get a resident visa here than by being family.
Of course there are commitments and dangers as well, and we will address the possibility of having to pay support, divide your property and negotiate the custody of children (sadly, dogs are still considered property) in the next column. If you want to minimize such dangers there is always the possibility of a prenuptial agreement ― Korea will recognize certain prenups as valid. This will also be addressed in a future column.
The non-Korean spouse will need to visit his or her embassy and complete a declaration of eligibility to marry, or a similar form with a different name. The U.S. Embassy, for example, has the form online so that you can print it out and complete it in advance. If you apply for an appointment online, the visit to the consulate to notarize the paper should take less than 20 minutes.
Then you will need to get married. The district, or “gu,” office can give you the forms and two witnesses are required. You will also need to translate the declaration from the consulate into Korean. A nonprofessional translation is fine for this, so long as it gets the info right.
With the translation and the original in hand, as well as the Korean paperwork, the couple needs to visit the district office with both parties’ IDs. The process doesn’t take much longer than a visit to the bank. Congratulations, you have now created a new set of legal rights and liabilities, although perhaps you would have preferred for us to stop after “congratulations.”
If you are the foreign spouse, your visa status has not changed. That requires a lot of simple, but seemingly endless, paperwork for immigration. Don’t forget to mention that you want to change visas when you visit the consulate. If you do this, they will give you the necessary paperwork to complete and translate. As for the Korean spouse, if he or she wishes to immigrate to the non-Korean’s country, there will be a whole mess of paperwork costing hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars; the U.S.’ procedure alone could warrant its own article.
If your marriage has not gone so well, and you’re curious about how to dissolve it, we will address that next time.
By Yuna Lee and Darren Bean
Yuna Lee is a Korean attorney at Seowoo & Minyul Law Firm in Seoul. You can read her blog at askakoreanlawyer.blogspot.com or if there is a legal issue you would like to be addressed, please email email@example.com. ― Ed.