Inheritance for N.Koreans Opens Pandora's Box

      July 14, 2011 13:42

      A Seoul district court has ordered that children left behind in North Korea by a man who came to the South during the 1950-53 Korean War deserve an equal share of his inheritance. The children in the North filed a suit against their stepmother and half-siblings in South Korea.

      The court did not reveal the amount of inheritance the two sides must agree to share. If they agree, the court order gains the same binding effect as a ruling. The North Korean children filed the lawsuit through their oldest sister, whom their father brought with him when he came to the South some 60 years ago, and a pastor in the U.S. They sent samples of their hair and fingernails to South Korea via the pastor to verify their relationship with their father.

      The court order marks the first instance where the inheritance rights of children left behind in North Korea were recognized in South Korea. An estimated 5 million North Koreans came to the South during the Korean War. An organization estimates that some 8.3 million of such people and their children and grandchildren are living here, and their families and descendants left behind in the North are also estimated in the millions. The court order is expected to lead to similar lawsuits against parents or half-siblings living in South Korea. Even the grandchildren of North Korean escapees could sue.

      According to South Korean law, the direct descendants of deceased citizens are entitled to inherit their assets. The court order would have to be applied across the board to all children of North Korean escapees still living in the North, and this could trigger chaos and an explosive increase in lawsuits. This raises the question how to deal with inheritance suits filed by North Koreans claiming to be members of a particular clan that also exists in South Korea. In such cases, it would be difficult to verify the accuracy of family registers kept in North Korea and whether to recognize their validity.

      The Justice Ministry is working on a law that requires government permission when North Koreans transfer inherited assets from families in the South outside the country and allows the transfer of limited amounts only in certain specified cases, such as paying for medical bills and basic livelihood. But North Koreans could file suits claiming that this regulation infringes their constitutional rights, since the South Korean Constitution applies in principle to all Koreans. The court order raises more questions than it answers.

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