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Skepticism clouds roles of overseas Korean nationals in upcoming election

Political parties yet to announce candidates representing overseas Koreans

Feb. 26, 2024 - 18:01 By Jung Min-kyung

Employees of the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in New York promote voting for the upcoming general election in this photo taken in November last year. (Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in New York)

The launch of the Overseas Korean Agency raised expectations that overseas Korean nationals could play a bigger role in this year's general election, but experts are skeptical.

With polling indicating a weak turnout and parties showing little interest, they say the impact of overseas voters is likely to be very small.

"The interest in the upcoming election is obviously lower than the 2022 presidential election," Lee Jean-young, director of Inha Center for International Studies said in a phone interview.

"There have been no major improvements so far regarding the voting system for overseas Korean voters," he added, while pointing to the decline in the overall number of overseas Korean voters.

As of end-2022, there were 7.08 million overseas Korean residents, according to the latest government data.

However, only a tiny percentage are both eligible and willing to vote. Only 7.6 percent or 150,701 of 1.97 million eligible overseas Korean voters aged 18 or older have either registered or expressed intention to vote in the upcoming election, according to preliminary data compiled by the National Election Commission.

The election watchdog noted that this would mean a decline of 8.2 percent in the number of overseas Korean voters compared with the previous legislative election in 2020. Those who signed up to vote declined 15 percent in the cited period.

The voter turnout among overseas Koreans in the previous general election was also meager, coming at 23.8 percent. This was the lowest since the NEC started compiling the data in 2012, though it was likely influenced by social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overseas Korean nationals have voiced the need to improve the voting system, which only allows voters to visit consulates or a select few designated places in person. They have called for introducing postal or email voting.

“A main reason why the voting turnout is so low among overseas Korean voters is that it is physically difficult to visit the polling places set up by foreign emissaries,” Shim Sang-man, president of the World Assembly of Korean Associations said.

“In order to improve that, we must allow voting by mail or email by reforming the law,” he added.

Lee echoed Shim in the sense that for some overseas voters it may take a full day to travel to a nearby consulate or its branch office to cast a ballot, depending on the geography of the country they're based in.

"For example, voters in Texas, United States (which covers 695,660 square kilometers) living in areas other than Houston, where the consulate office is located at, might need to travel for a full day just to cast a vote. It's an incredibly grueling process for voters who live far away from consulates."

Political parties have yet to announce any candidates to represent overseas Korean nationals as well.

In the previous general election, the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea and the ruling People Power Party’s predecessor the United Future Party either considered or nominated such candidates, but they failed to make the final cut.

"At the moment, there is a lack of a solid election system which gives power to the candidates that could represent overseas Korean communities," Lee explained.

The OKA is the first government agency dedicated to improving the livelihoods of Koreans who have acquired permanent residency in a foreign country or are studying abroad.