In 2005, the South Korean government revised the Immigration Control Act to allow non-Korean citizens who have held resident visas (F-5) for at least three years to vote in gubernatorial elections, so that they can claim their rights in their registered local constituencies. The number of eligible foreign voters has tripled since the law came into effect for the local and gubernatorial election in 2006, but manifestos of and information about the candidates are not provided in any other language, only in Korean.
“You just have to study on your own. I asked my acquaintances, and studied. But it is indeed difficult to know. Often fewer people with voting rights are interested because they cannot understand the language,” Lee Su-yoen, a naturalized Korean citizen from Vietnam, told The Korea Herald.
Lee, 36, voted in two presidential elections in 2012 and 2017 and one local election in 2014. And after living in Korea for more than 12 years after marrying her Korean husband, she explained that foreigners and multicultural families are often left out in the policymaking process, as they are perceived as insignificant in number.
“I saw several times politicians visiting places and meeting the multicultural family households, but all they do is just greet. They do not really explain to us their policies,” she explained.
“There are newsletters provided from multicultural family support centers, written in Vietnamese, they were not comprehensible,” she added.
“Not all permanent visa holders are fluent in Korean. Voting is their right and they should be provided with proper information about practicing their rights,” said Fahad Abdullah, a Bangladeshi studying international peace and security at Korea University’s graduate school.
Abdullah, who has been in Korea for more than six years and is considering staying in the country after graduation, explained such treatment would give the right-holders a sense of belonging to Korean society and allow them to feel they are part of the society they live in.
According to statistics from the National Election Commission, there were 6,726 eligible foreign voters for the fourth gubernatorial election in 2006. In the fifth gubernatorial election, 35.2 percent of the eligible foreign voters of 12,787 cast votes, while 17.6 percent of 48,428 voted in the latest local election in 2014.
The NEC sites provide candidate information, such as name, affiliated party and past career information, but only in Korean.
The NEC explained that while it expects more foreign voters for this year’s local election, it is difficult for the government to provide candidate information in other languages.
“All we can do is provide knowledge on basic procedures and the election system itself,” Choi Kwan-yong, an official from the NEC told The Korea Herald.
The National Election Commission also has programs to educate multicultural families on the country’s election system, but that is limited to the basic procedures, and it does not provide information on the candidates.
“As for candidate information, we only accept what the candidates have registered. The booklet that all candidates are subject to send to the voters in their districts and electorates have page limits, and it is their choice to have their manifesto in another language,” Choi explained.
Aware of the increasing number of such voters, the NEC also said it would prepare English and Chinese notices for eligible foreign voters for this year’s local election. Before a national election, it is mandatory for the election committee to deliver a notice to the houses of the Electoral College, informing them of the election processes.
Seol Dong-hoon, a sociology professor at Chonbuk National University, explained that the confusion comes from the lack of a clear migration policy.
“In the United States, even though they have so many foreigners and multicultural families, not many states provide candidate manifestos in other languages -- maybe in California in Spanish. France takes strict assimilation policy and they do not feel the need to translate their language to another for their migrants. Canada is opposite,” he said.
“For South Korea, there is not a defined law which explains whether the country takes an assimilation policy or a multicultural policy here. To reduce confusion, it is crucial lawmakers revise the current migration law or come up with a special law to address the increasing foreign population,” Seol said.
By Jo He-rim (firstname.lastname@example.org)