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[News Focus] Steve Yoo starts 2nd legal battle over entry ban

A photo of Steve Seung Jun Yoo on Yoo’s Instagram, October 5, 2019.
A photo of Steve Seung Jun Yoo on Yoo’s Instagram, October 5, 2019.
Korean American singer Steve Seung Jun Yoo, known here as Yoo Seung-jun, is waging yet another legal battle to win his way back into South Korea, his birth country.

The Korean-born singer has repeatedly appealed to the Korean government to lift the entry ban imposed on him in 2002 after he obtained US citizenship, an action viewed by officials here as an attempt to dodge mandatory military duty required of all capable Korean men.

And things still look gloomy for Yoo.

In March this year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Yoo, who had sought to overturn the Los Angeles Consulate General’s decision not to issue him the F-4 residency visa reserved for people of Korean descent.

The highest court, however, did not explicitly say that the government must grant him the visa, but found that there was a procedural flaw because the consulate had failed to exercise its independent discretion.

The consulate decided not to grant Yoo a visa based on the Justice Ministry’s 2002 entry ban, but it should have exercised its discretion, the top court said. This would not prevent the consulate from making the same decision in the future if it were to find other grounds to deny Yoo a visa.

In July, the Los Angeles Consulate cited other grounds to turn down Yoo’s application, invoking a separate law on overseas Koreans that said a visa could be denied if the applicant posed a threat to the public interest.

In October, Yoo responded with a complaint at the Seoul Administrative Court, asking it to overturn the consulate’s decision, and said he was ready to go to the Supreme Court again.

“A trial has yet to start but for now, we stand ready to go all the way,” Kim Hyung-soo, an attorney representing Yoo, told The Korea Herald.

The Korean government maintains that the entry ban on Yoo should remain in place because letting him come back here could hurt society’s values regarding a “sacred military duty,” at the heart of the country’s interests.

Korea’s foreign minister reaffirmed that stance, as did the chief of the Military Manpower Administration in charge of conscription.

“Our position is that we are not issuing Yoo the visa,” Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told the parliamentary foreign affairs committee on Oct. 26.

Yoo contends that his rights continue to be violated, and some human rights activists agree.

“I just don’t understand how his reentry could hurt society’s values -- the sacred duty and all that,” activist Jung Rok of the Sarangbang Group for Human Rights told The Korea Herald.

“The government is also limiting Yoo’s freedom of movement by upholding the ban.”

Some experts differed, however.

“Yoo gained the US citizenship and dodged the military duty here last minute,” Kim Sang-kyum, a professor of constitutional law at Dongguk University, told The Korea Herald.

“And he's a foreign national, meaning the Korean government has no obligation to extend its basic rights guaranteed in the Constitution to him. Those rights written there are reserved for citizens here.”

Kim also disputed Yoo’s claims that his human rights were being violated.

“The right to life, for instance, could be an example of human rights. Is his life in jeopardy because he isn’t allowed here?” Kim asked.

While the government and public still remain unsympathetic to Yoo’s cause, the chief of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea offered a strikingly different tone on the matter on Friday, saying her agency would revisit the entry ban.

“We plan to go over his complaints again, in light of new events and in accordance with our past decisions,” Chairperson Choi Young-ae told the parliamentary steering committee in a reference to the Supreme Court ruling in March.

In 2003, the rights commission agreed with the Justice Ministry, which had prevented Yoo from entering in 2002 on the grounds of the immigration law, which said the ministry could refuse entry to any foreign national who could hurt the economic or social order or society’s shared values. 

It could also do so if the foreign national posed a potential threat to the state’s interests or safety.

“At the moment, we aren't thinking about petitioning the commission,” Yoo’s attorney said.

The commission’s decision is nonbinding but carries weight because it influences public opinion. But as Yoo has gained little sympathy from the public, he would hardly benefit from the decision even if the commission ruled in his favor.

The second legal battle Yoo initiated is expected to last more than a couple of years. It took him five years to see the first Supreme Court ruling in March this year.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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