Dual U.S.-Korean Nationality Nears
South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, reaching out to hundreds of thousands of Koreans in Southern California, said Saturday that his government is preparing a new initiative to enable Korean Americans to enjoy the privileges of dual citizenship.
Technically, it will not be called that because of possible thorny legal ramifications, such as mandatory military service in South Korea, he said in an interview. But, under the proposal, Koreans outside that country would be able to enjoy the same benefits as Korean citizens in work, property ownership, travel and inheritance rights, said the 72-year-old president, whose ties to the Korean American community go back to the early 1970s.
Last week, his justice minister met with lawyers in Los Angeles to examine legal issues concerning the change, which could take effect as early as this fall, Kim said.
The policy would be similar to one adopted by Mexico in March that allows Mexicans who have become citizens of other countries to reclaim their original “nationality.”
Kim, accompanied by first lady Lee Hee Ho, on Saturday wound up what he called a “very productive” weeklong U.S. visit in Los Angeles, which has the largest Korean community outside Asia and in which he has many supporters.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Times, the first opposition leader to head the South Korean government said he has a special place in his heart for America.
“I cannot go so far as to say that America is my second home, but I feel very close to America,” he said in Korean. “Americans saved my life twice,” he added, recalling his days as a dissident who delivered spellbinding oratory and whom successive South Korean dictators tried to get rid of.
Kim, who spent three years of exile in the United States during the 1980s and has visited Los Angeles about 20 times, said he has high hopes for Korean Americans. Those born in Korea and raised in the United States (known as the 1.5 generation) and second-generation Korean Americans are becoming increasingly important players in relations between the two countries, he said.
“Korean Americans who are well-versed in both cultures and languages can become valuable bridges in the future of the two nations,” Kim said. “I value them. Our government should reach out to them and treat them well.”
For their part, Korean Americans should strive to become part of the U.S. mainstream as quickly as possible, he said.
“Koreans who live in America should learn English well,” he said, and “become good Americans.” At the same time, their children need to know their roots--their ancestral history, culture and language, he added.
In a global economy, multilingual and multicultural people on both sides of the Pacific are indispensable, he said.
Asked how he handles pressures from his supporters in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the United States vying for positions in his new administration, Kim smiled and said, “I try to help them. I try to find them positions when they are available and they have qualifications.”
Touching on his summit meeting with President Clinton in Washington last week, Kim said he is prepared to face North Korean leader Kim Jong Il “any time and anywhere” to improve relations between the two Koreas. The country was split by the superpowers at the end of World War II.
Though the Korean War, which began June 25, 1950, ended with an armistice three years later, a peace treaty was never signed. The desolate demilitarized zone that separates the two sides is both the world’s most heavily armed spot--with 1.5 million soldiers facing each other--and, ironically, a sanctuary for rare Korean birds. About 37,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea.
That the Korean peninsula remains the last vestige of the Cold War is “tragic,” Kim said. “We [Koreans] call ourselves one people, yet we have been separated for half a century.”
Kim, long an advocate of a policy of “engagement” with North Korea, urged the United States during his visit to lift economic sanctions against the north.
“We have made progress,” Kim said, adding that his visit marked the first time a South Korean head of state has offered a foreign policy initiative to an American president.
“Until now, the United States has taken the lead, but this time, we did,” Kim said.
Reunification may not be realistic during his tenure, which ends in 2003, but broadening communication channels and initiating travel, cultural and economic exchanges are feasible, he said.
More than 10 million Koreans around the world are separated from their families who remain in the north. There has not even been mail service between the two countries since 1950. Allowing visits between separated families is a top priority, Kim said.
Kim, who won the presidency in December by a narrow plurality and took office in February, was asked about his decision to then press his predecessor to pardon former Presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, which the lame-duck leader did.
Chun had been sentenced to life in prison and Roh to 17 years on mutiny, treason and corruption charges. Chun was also convicted of murder for the bloody suppression of a pro-democracy uprising in Kwangju in 1980 and for the amassing of tens of millions of dollars in bribes from businessmen.
Kim’s critics have attacked his action as a political sellout. But the president said his decision was based on what was best for the welfare of his nation.
“In my heart I may detest” Chun and Roh, he said. “I’m not God, so it’s not so easy to forgive.” But he had to differentiate between the two as human beings and their deeds as politicians, he said.
Kim quoted Lincoln in English: “Malice toward none; charity toward all,” and said he tries to remember the great American president’s advice.
“Lincoln was against the system of slavery, and he got rid of the system, but he was charitable to those who favored slavery,” Kim said.
Similarly, Kim said he detested the system that allowed Chun and Roh to act as they did, but did not have the same feelings toward the men themselves.
“Punishment for a politician is not being put in jail,” said Kim, who spent seven years in prison. “Disgrace, disaffection of the people” were enough punishment for the pair, he said.
Concerning his nation’s troubled economy, Kim said the next year will be the toughest. But he is optimistic that both the South Korean government and people have learned a lesson.
“It was the fault of the government, which told the people, ‘We are rich, travel abroad and spend money,’ ” he said. “We need to repent, and that’s happening.”
For his part, he has donated all his family gold to the government, he said.
Converted to Roman Catholicism in 1957, Kim says his faith is important in his politics. He has a private service with a priest who comes to the South Korean presidential mansion on Sundays. Kim and his wife, a Methodist, are among the one-fourth of the South Korean population who are Christians.
Although he does not have a set devotional schedule, Kim does try to study the Bible as much as he can, he said.
His favorite verses are in Matthew 25. He paraphrased several of them in Korean, including:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. . . . I will tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
* CHILDREN’S HOUR: Korean American adoptees meet South Korea’s first lady. B1