Song So-young, head of the justice ministry's nationality division, talks during an online hearing on Saturday. (Yonhap)
The justice ministry's plan to lower the barrier for children of permanent residents to gain citizenship has triggered protest from people who suspect the move was a ploy to benefit Chinese living here.
An early draft of the revision to the Nationality Act allows children of permanent residents with "close ties" to South Korea to easily acquire citizenship. In detail, children up to the age of 6 will be able to immediately gain citizenship without preconditions and those aged 7 and above will be required to have lived here for at least five years.
Under the current law, they can apply for citizenship at age 18, which involves a written test and interview, unless their parents have already naturalized.
Since the ministry made an advance notice of the legislative plan, a petition opposing the revision has drawn more than 317,000 signatures on the Cheong Wa Dae website.
The online petition claimed Chinese people living in the country, believed to be the biggest potential benefiters from the revision, were already enjoying "many rights," including voting in local elections.
It is "not acceptable" to grant citizenship to hundreds of foreigners each year "as a way to tackle the country's low birthrate and aging population," the petition read. Rather, the government should try to make the country a better place to live for its people in order to solve the problems, it said.
In the face of growing complaints, which could potentially fan anti-Chinese sentiment, the ministry has intensified a public relations campaign, by holding an online hearing last week and explaining the legislative plan on a popular radio show.
The ministry emphasized priority will be given to families that have lived here for several generations and permanent residents with otherwise deep historical or ethnic ties to the country. The specific criteria for eligibility will be established through an enforcement ordinance after sufficient public discussions, the ministry said.
According to the ministry, approximately 3,930 people are currently eligible to apply for citizenship and nearly 95 percent, or 3,725 people, are Chinese nationals.
Facing suspicions that the revision was in line with the Moon Jae-in government's pro-Chinese policy, the ministry said that the revision was drafted after carefully considering various factors for "national interest" and "social cohesion."
"A permanent resident gives birth to a child here and the child later gets citizenship through the naturalization process," Song So-young, head of the ministry's nationality division, said on a local radio show Monday. "Advancing the process will be helpful for both the child and the country."
"Children who are born in Korea receive public education here and mostly want to live here for the rest of their lives," she said, adding the revision will help them establish a Korean identity early on, adjust to society and grow into Korean citizens who fulfill national duties like mandatory military service.
She also said the concentration on a certain nationality will be "gradually eased over time."
During the public hearing last week, Park Jeong-hae, a lawyer, stressed that citizenship was not only about benefits and rights but also about responsibilities.
"It is wrong to say that the country is giving benefits through citizenship," she said.
Still, public sentiment toward the revision remains sour. The YouTube video of the online hearing attracted overwhelmingly negative comments. Many suspected that the ministry invited panels who were in favor of the plan.
"It is not that we don't have a system. We do have the naturalization test. If they want, they can take it to become a Korean citizen, so what is the point of the revision?" Lee Tae-ha asked in a comment on the video.
The ministry said it will continue hearing and gathering opinions on the issue until Monday for a final draft of the revision. (Yonhap)