The Constitutional Court ruled Wednesday that a law barring South Koreans from changing their resident registration numbers was unconstitutional.
The court said the current law on resident registration numbers excessively violates citizens’ basic rights to make decisions about their own personal information, ordering the government to present a revision by the end of 2017.
“It is an excessive violation of rights that the government does not allow Koreans to change their resident numbers regardless of damage from leakage or abuse of personal information,” the panel of eight judges said in the verdict.
Under the current law, the 13-digit resident registration number is issued to every Korean national at birth. The number, composed of their birthdate and seven unique digits, is commonly used in daily activities including creation of bank accounts, online shopping or purchase of mobile phones.
But as the law does not have a clause allowing Koreans to alter their identification number, citizens use the same number at all times, even when their information is leaked.
The court has ordered the government to change the number only in exceptional cases when errors are found in the birthdate.
Refuting claims that the system overhaul could be abused by criminals, the court stressed the need for an “objective and fair system to review applications for changing resident numbers.”
A group of five people, including a man surnamed Kang, filed a suit against the Ministry of Interior with the Constitutional Court after the government rejected the request and lower courts ruled against them.
They asked the court to revoke the government’s rejection, arguing that their numbers were stolen and exposed them to the danger of identity theft and scams.
But the ministry maintained that there are no alternatives to the current system and the permission to change resident numbers would take a toll on their administrative tasks.
It also cited the hefty costs. According to the ministry’s own estimate, the reform of the system could cost up to 670 billion won ($571 million).
The verdict came amid mounting concerns over security of personal information amid a series of data theft cases and financial scams in Korea in recent years.
In early 2014, a massive leak of client databases at Lotte Card, KB Kookmin Card and NongHyup Card shocked Koreans, triggering calls for a reform in the current resident registration system. More than 200 million identification numbers were leaked online as a result.
Under the growing pressure, the government put forward a bill to allow its citizens to change the numbers when there are well-established fears and danger of damage to their person or property.
But activists and experts have pointed out that the measure does not sufficiently protect data from being stolen and misused in the first place, suggesting that the number be composed of entirely random digits not related to personal details.
The resident registration system was introduced in 1968 as a 12-digit number, as part of efforts to track down North Korean spies in the aftermath of an attempted assassination of then-President Park Chung-hee. The current 13-digit system took effect in 1975.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com)