08 December 2008

Vital Records

Today, I ended up doing something very few foreigners in South Korea ever do - visit a district office and take care of government records. Most foreigners deal with immigration offices, if at that, and do not need to deal with local district offices until after they naturalize. Needless to say, this was my first visit to a South Korean district office, and may be my last.

District offices are numerous - in urban areas, it's no more than a quarter-mile walk away from any residence - and they offer lots of services. Specific services include those pertaining to the personal and family relations registry, which is the basic vital records database for all South Koreans, as well as those pertaining to current resident registration, which tracks the current residence information for all people with current South Korean nationality and residency. Again, the latter part would be performed by an immigration office for foreigners. Back in the US, and in other English-speaking nations, there are no such centralized databases, though in case of the US, state DMV offices come close in terms of managing personal data.

The current residence registration stuff can even be done at automated kiosks in many public places, including subway stations, assuming that I carry a valid National ID card. But the basic vital records, which I took care of today, must be done in person. As previously stated, I am a naturalized American, and that should be good enough to revoke my South Korean nationality, but the naturalization has never been properly reported to South Korea, and filing the report requires certified copies of my vital records, dated within the last six months. I decided to wait until the last minute to get my records for this reason, but now that I have less than a week before my return to the US, it was time to get the records.

It wasn't too difficult; I needed to simply present proof of identity (my final South Korean passport was fine), and for my family members, I had to fill out some simple paperwork to leave a record that I was an authorized requester (immediate family), with valid reason (US naturalization) for the records. It took 25 minutes or so to pull out all the records I wanted, but otherwise was quite painless.

The old Confucian family census register (호적 hojeok), with the family as the basic unit of records, is obsolete, replaced by a new, electronic Family Relations Register (가족관계등록부), with the individual as the basic unit. The electronic database was initially created in 2005, and the following few years were spent transcribing the old paper register into electronic form; the database finally went online as of January 1, 2008. (The transcription inevitably had some errors, but fortunately, all records relevant to me were transcribed correctly.) I can get five different types of records: family relations, individual, marital history, and two different adoption history. I obtained family relations for my parents, myself, and my siblings, and individual for all of them plus my deceased grandparents.

The individual record states the registrant's name in Korean and (if applicable) Chinese, National ID number, sex, birthday, and clan. There is also some information on why the record was created; for those born before 2008, the record is dated to January 1, 2008, in accordance with creation of the new database. Other information includes the registrant's reference address, which replaces the permanent address in the old database. The original permanent address is where a newly formed family (usually by marriage) first establishes residence, and cannot be changed, as the paper records were all kept at the district office that governs the said address; the reference address, however, is arbitrary, and can be changed to any valid South Korean address. This also means that vital records can now be pulled at any South Korean district office; my permanent address was in downtown Seoul, but I pulled my records today in Seongnam. Finally, miscellaneous information, including birthplace as well as who reported the birth and when, can also be found.

The family relations record repeats the basic vital information and the reference address. The rest of the record lists the person's parents, and if applicable, spouse and children, as well as their identifying information. Under the old laws, parents and children had to be biological, but the new laws allow replacing them with adoptive family members. Also, one's only possible legal family name and clan used to be that of the biological father, but now, upon prior parental agreement, it's possible to take the name of the mother or an adoptive parent. Adults are still NOT allowed to change their family names, however - not even taking the spouse's name in case of marriage. The new laws are flexible enough to make room for nontraditional families (even better, without having to even declare that the family is nontraditional), and even in case of future legalization of gay marriage, it can easily be accommodated.

(Speaking of marriages, marrying within the same clan used to be illegal. This was due to the fact that many traditional villages used to be inhabited exclusively by one clan; this had to be done to prevent inbreeding. Marrying someone of the same surname, but a different clan, was permissible in principle, but next to impossible in reality, as many of these identically-named different clans are often from a formerly same clan. In a nation where 1/4 of the population is a Kim, that's a huge problem. This law is no longer in effect; it's now permissible to marry anyone of the opposite sex as long as the relationship is fourth cousin or more distant - I think.)

So far, so good. But as it turned out, my parents' family relations records were turning up only Korean names for my grandparents, and no further information. All four grandparents are deceased, and their records are no longer active. Some detective work was required to obtain my grandparents' records - or at least, certification that their records are now inactive. I got them as well. The certification of deactivation (제적등본) includes an electronic cover page listing the basic information, as well as scans of the old family census register; all my grandparents passed away before the new database went online, so the old register and laws still apply.

I ended up first getting the family census register record for my father's family, with my paternal grandfather as the head of household, which includes his Busan permanent address, names of my great-grandparents, my paternal grandparents, my father and his siblings, and even in-law information. As it turns out, one of the in-laws was actually born in Republic of China! Yes, as it's all old-style family records, there is no privacy whatsoever. This household no longer exists, as the parents are deceased and the children have now married and formed their own households, so the record is clearly labeled as "deactivated," and a large X covers all the names.

My maternal grandparents, also with a Busan address, also got the same treatment. Again, my grandparents and great-grandparents are listed, as well as all my uncles and aunts. However, deceased aunts are not listed, as they had died in infancy in North Korea, and therefore never had a chance to make it to South Korean records. It's nice to know what all these people's names were, though they are in complicated Chinese characters that I can neither read nor understand. The records for that matter are written vertically, and use lots of Chinese characters; by contrast, similar records for my father's own household, first created in the 1970s, were horizontal, and limited Chinese characters to absolutely necessary information.

Once my nationality renunciation paperwork is filed, my own records will be deactivated, and a similar certificate of deactivation will be provided to me, both as proof of my former South Korean nationality and its current revocation. It will be needed if I ever want to get a long-term South Korean visa, including the special 2-year renewable visa reserved for former South Koreans and their immediate descendants. With that visa, all rights and responsibilities of a South Korean apply to me, except for voting rights and military duty; the rights even include government health insurance and working permit (I may not do manual labor, and I must get professional licenses if my occupation requires one). Finally, in the extremely unlikely case that I want to become a South Korean national, it's easily done, not as naturalization, but as restoration of nationality (I will be required to renounce my US citizenship within six months, however); my vital records will simply re-activate at that point. But none of this can happen without properly renouncing South Korean nationality first; I can't restore a nationality that I don't properly lose. (And in any case, I highly doubt that 2MB would now want to extend any of these rights to me, as I am pretty sure that he'd rather revoke my existing visa instead.)

Last, but not the least, people who were born in North Korean areas, or under Japanese rule or earlier, may not have reliable/complete records. Government clerks had to make records for these people using unreliable family records, or even oral testimony, and even then, they made lots of errors. (When you are fleeing for your life from North Korea, carrying identification is the least of your worries. And government clerks back then were often barely literate, and having to suddenly process millions of North Korean refugees and other new registrations, they were bound to make tons of mistakes.) My father has his birthplace information (a North Korean rural address, though the address is today urban in reality - though South Korea does not recognize the change), but no information on who reported the birth. My mother has no birthplace information at all; she did have birthplace information in my maternal grandfather's household, but when she got married and was transferred to my father's household, the information was not transferred. Even her birthday is off by a month. And for that matter, my maternal grandfather is legally seven years older than in reality. Of course, if you flee North Korea today, you do need to carry a North Korean ID to establish eligibility for South Korean nationality - and your vital records are created based on your North Korean ID.

The certification is done with an official red stamp belonging to the ward governor (mayor in smaller cities, head of township in rural areas). A fee stamp in green is also applied. I needed to pull ten records, at 1,000 won each, for a grand total of 10,000 won. It's still cheaper than pulling vital records in the US, but in the old days, a single record for my entire household, costing just 1,000 won (actually even less), would've done the same job. Nevertheless, being forced to pull only relevant reports is a huge step in the right direction in protecting privacy. Under the old laws, total strangers could pull my report as long as they had my name, ID number, permanent address, and any legitimate-sounding reason (even bogus), and it would've contained very sensitive information pertaining to all my family members, including any divorce history or any other derogatory information. Yes, my sister getting divorced could've cost me a job opportunity in the old days!

I'm glad to have pulled my vital records, and it was a very revealing experience. I look forward to taking these records back to Los Angeles, and doing the formal nationality renunciation paperwork at the South Korean consulate. And before I give up these vital records to the consulate, I will make sure to photocopy them for permanent personal reference. Sure, the records are printed on A4 paper, which is the metric equivalent of US Letter (A4 is slightly narrower and longer), but photocopying to US Letter should not pose any problems.

For comparison, the old family census register is discussed in a previous post, from August.