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Between Borders

After the Japanese annexation of the Korean peninsula in 1910, many Koreans migrated to Japan—some voluntarily, others by force. During Japan’s 35-year occupation of the country, all Koreans were legal Japanese citizens, but after the defeat of the Japanese Empire, Koreans in Japan were effectively stateless. These people, dubbed as having Joseon-jeok by the temporary government during the Allied Occupation of Japan, were eventually allowed to remain as Special Permanent Residents but were not given Japanese citizenship. Today, there is a dwindling population of 30,000 people with Joseon-jeok.

It is important to note that Joseon-jeok is not an actual nationality—it is a term applied to the Special Permanent Residents who hold neither Japanese nor Korean citizenship and are effectively stateless. People with Joseon-jeok can be recognized as South Korean citizens or apply for naturalization to gain full Japanese citizenship at any time., Indeed, after the normalization of South Korean­­–Japanese relations in 1965, most people of Joseon-jeok gradually registered as South Korean citizens for convenience, since lacking an official nationality made them subject to myriad bureaucratic challenges.

However, many people with Joseon-jeok have no desire to change their legal statelessness and refuse to choose a citizenship for a variety of reasons. Some believe that North Korea is their true motherland but cannot legally choose North Korean citizenship, since Japan does not recognize North Korea as a country. Others believe that neither North nor South Korea represents their identity, as their ancestors came from a unified Korea. Still others don’t want to accept the citizenship of Japan, their former colonizer.

Among many challenges, the lack of having an official nationality makes international travel a significant issue for those with Joseon-jeok. The easiest solution for the Japanese government would be to unilaterally give citizenship to all people of Joseon-jeok, but this would likely cause massive backlash. Issuing passports to non-citizens is impractical as well, since it is international custom to issue full passports only to citizens. The modern Japanese government has nonetheless attempted to offer meaningful solutions for people with Joseon-jeok. Recognizing the need to address its historical faults, the Japanese government has created a workaround in re-entry permits, which can be used as international travel documents. Still, many countries don’t accept these as valid passports for visa issuance, so their use as travel documents is seriously limited.

The statelessness of those with Joseon-jeok leads to complicated questions of national identity and family separation. South Korea doesn’t treat people of Joseon-jeok as citizens unless they register as such, so visiting South Korea can be difficult. Those who wish to visit must apply for travel certificates—which only allow for single trips to South Korea—and applications have often been denied in recent years under conservative administrations. A man who was denied a travel certificate sued the Korean government in 2009 and eventually lost in the Supreme Court in 2013, when it ruled that people with Joseon-jeok do not have an inherent right to enter South Korea.

However, President Moon Jae-in’s new administration seems to be easing restrictions on people with Joseon-jeok entering South Korea. In January 2018, the government made it easier for those with Joseon-jeok to receive travel certificates by reducing the issue time to eight days. After the change in administration in 2017, the issuance rate jumped from 50 percent to 93.1 percent.

But the South Korean government needs to go further, as the ability of these people to travel and obtain legal recognition ought be prioritized over questions of historical fault, especially because policy solutions are virtually free and carry little political cost. The government should issue multi-use travel certificates that can be used as passports for foreign travel to those who request them, as well as the opportunity to visit South Korea without restriction. For those of Korean ethnicity who refuse South Korean citizenship, issuing travel certificates is a basic humanitarian benefit with few drawbacks. This potential policy may face opposition, especially from the conservative party, but President Moon’s approval ratings have been on the rise since his summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Moon Jae-in’s increasingly positive public opinion may clear the way for his administration to implement potentially controversial policies.

In principle, it is the burden of the colonizing power to make amends with its former colonies. But in this case, Japan has already done practically everything it can, regardless of whether people with Joseon-jeok choose to accept or refuse these accommodations. While it is unfortunate that the onus of reparations now falls on the formerly colonized state, the fact of the matter is that the ball is in South Korea’s court to minimize the feelings of displacement and statelessness people with Joseon-jeok.