Before I start this post, I want to add a disclaimer. Bureaucracy can be bad in any country, and in the US, I too have had to deal with it at the DMV, or being passed between departments when I call for customer service only to be hung up on. So while some of this criticism that will be tossed Korea’s way is actually just criticism of inefficient beurocracy, I think that Korea has a special penchant for this inefficiency. Of course, there may be factors that I as a noncitizen of Korea face, that I wouldn’t otherwise face (or be aware of). And my comparitive experiences in the US are as a citizen, so it’s kind of an unfair comparison. However, I’ve also lived in Japan, and the bureaucracy there was not quite as difficult to navigate. The disclaimer is meant to say this is not to suggest that it is a Korean trait to not have critical thinking skills or to be able to figure out rules and regulations, but I’ve had my fair share of bad run-ins with Korean clerks, both public and private.
The story of my relationship with the Korean bureaucracy starts in 2006, as I am applying for an F-4 Visa (a visa that grants almost permanent residency for overseas Koreans) at the Korean embassy in Washington, DC. The credentials for getting the visa list some specific documents. These include copies of the expired family register of my now American-citizen father. I am of course unable to produce this document, but I have a copy of the original family register, and there’s an expired F-4 Visa in my passport, meaning I qualified for it before. The clerk I am talking to at the embassy says I need the updated document from Korea that you can get at any Gu or Dong office. So I ask her if she wants me to fly all the way to Korea for that, then fly back and re-apply for a Visa that I’ve already previously qualified for. She asks me if I have any family in Korea that can do it for me. I do, but that might be a terrible inconvenience for them, so I say that I’ve been accepted to Grad School, and I need to get this visa taken care of before I leave in about 2 months time, and that I don’t have time or money to fly to Korea for that document. After a good back and forth, another clerk steps in and says what I assumed (I did not speak Korean well at the time) was that if I had the visa, I’d still need to produce these documents to immigration to land my domestic residence, and since I qualified for the visa before, I’m likely not lying. They went back and forth for a while and finally she decided to take my passport for the visa processing. On my way home, I get a call from this same lady, who asks if I had satisfied my military service. I explain to her that I’ve never been a citizen of the ROK, and therefore do not have to do any military service, and she says that if I’ve never been a citizen of Korea then I don’t qualify for the F-4. I explain to her that this is not true. As I am the son of a person who was once a Korean citizen, I qualify. Besides, I had an expired F-4 visa in the passport that she had in her hands, meaning I’ve already previously been approved for this visa. She then asks when my father became a U.S. citizen, because I would be a Korean citizen if this occurred after my birth. I replied it was one month before I was born, so yes, I’d be totally exempt. She retorts saying that Koreans at birth are already 1 year old, so my life technically begins one year before my birth… (Wait, what?)
“You mean before I was even conceived?”
…She says she will issue my visa and if Immigration wanted me to do my military service, I’d be at their mercy. Since I’d been in and out of Korea so many times in the previous 5 years, I was not at all worried.
That was my first run in with a clerk that abuses her power, that makes up rules on the fly without checking facts, and that generally WANTS to give you a hard time. A later check on the rules shows that the document she was requesting is actually available upon my request from any Korean consulate (meaning she should have printed it out for me rather than asking me to fly to Korea), half-Koreans at the time were not required to do military service and were not even allowed in the armed forces unless they “looked Korean,” and Korea only considers people citizens of Korea if they are listed on someone’s family register (including their own), meaning every single thing she was on about was false. One funny thing is that I provided her with a hospital birth certificate rather than a U.S. birth certificate, and she found no issue with that. Clearly she should have.
This one example clearly illustrates what one can expect when dealing with the system here. These types of interactions are not limited to government agencies. Companies you have to deal with to get things done, and practically the entire Korean internet display these infuriating tendencies as well. Without going into too much detail, here are the other major bureaucratic issues I’ve been through:
1. Needing an ID and a phone to get a bank account but needing an ID and a bank account to get a phone, while needing a phone to get an ID.
2. Upon attempting to renew my visa, having to re-submit every document again, coming back a week later with all the documents and a different clerk renewing without asking to see any of the documents.
3. Needing a Korean citizen ID to use a website designed specifically to offer service to non-Koreans.
4. At the hospital where my son was born it took them 4 tries to spell everyone’s name right, another 3 tries to get the doctor to sign the certificate instead of his secretary, and 2 tries to get an official seal on the certificate followed by yet another send back for misspelling names again, after first being angrily snapped at by the clerk about how they handle so many international births that they know what they are doing.
5. Not being allowed to assign Chinese characters when registering my son’s birth because we gave him a middle name.
6. Illogically needing a US birth certificate when applying for my son’s Korean passport, with the explanation that all dual citizens are born in the US. And being told that we must use a government official romanization of my son’s name in Hangul, which is itself transliterated from his western-origin given names and being told that my legal name Whong must be spelled Hwang or Whang in his passport. (For those following here’s an example: Roger David Lim = 임 로저데이비드 = Rojeo Daebideu Im). Eventually the clerk capitulated on everything simply because we wouldn’t give in.
There are other examples but these stand out the most. So why is it that Korea suffers from these issues?
It would be very lazy just to say culture and lack of critical thinking skills. The problem is that anything that represents a rare case puts the clerk in peril. They are in a position where they are supposed to know everything and if they have to ask, a superior how to handle something they are unsure of they will get in trouble for making their superior’s life difficult and possibly seen as incompetent. They will be in even more trouble if they give you something you aren’t entitled to so this is why it is easier to make up rules to make you someone else’s problem or to make you go away than to risk their entire career on giving you what you need or asking someone higher up to solve their problem. Add to that fact that there is a culture of saving face here, that if you said something that was factually incorrect, but are in a position of authority, you need to be given the proper amount of respect even if you are wrong.
So for example, when the gu-office employee is asking for my son’s US birth certificate for a Korean passport, it is because in every other case she has seen of a dual citizen baby, she’s needed to register the child as a citizen of Korea when the mother gave birth in the US. Never mind that he was already registered as a Korean citizen and she didn’t need to do anything about registering him. It’s simply easier to go with the established norm even if my case does not fit the established norm.
So enough complaining and explaining, what should be done about it?
Well “they should just” kind of posts are also kind of patronizing, however I do have some solutions.
- Staff in companies should not be rotated frequently between departments. They should be left in one department long enough that they get enough experience to see as many unique situations as possible, that way they can draw upon this experience when the situation arises again. Instead, with people being shifted around every so often, only the most common case is learned, and there is higher potential to be presented with a new situation one has never faced before.
- People starting off in a new department should have to take a test to make sure they are up-to-date on the most current regulations. This test should have as many different cases as possible. The test should be repeated two years later, or any time there is a rule change (it’s possible this rule has been implemented in several places and I am not aware).
- A handbook on these regulations should be readily available to every clerk, and they should be encouraged to use it to show the applicant the exact regulation they are invoking when refusing service. (In immigration, this book should be made in multiple languages.. and this might also be the case and I am unaware of it).
- It would be easy to say that people should be encouraged to ask questions to their supervisors, but that’s not something that can happen overnight, so the first three points should be implemented.
It doesn’t seem like Korean bureaucracy will change any time soon. What should I do if I am caught up in it?
- The best thing you can do is to be prepared. Study up on all the rules and applicable laws. They are available in several languages. In the event that you are being denied something you are entitled to, then it would be extremely helpful to your case if you can present the clerk with a copy of these rules and laws. Print them out if necessary.
- Be persistent. The clerk does not want to make your life difficult. What he or she wants is for you to go away so they can move on to the next person or have a bit of a break. If they quote you a rule and you have your suspicions (i.e. it does not sound logical that a U.S. document is required for a Korean passport), ask for an explanation, or ask for a supervisor. Most clerks will even go out of their way to help you out (giving you things you’re not actually entitled to) because it will make you go away faster.
Wait, that doesn’t happen!
Actually it does. Remember that expired family register document that I needed once I got to Korea? Well to get it I had to go to a dong office to request the document and prove my relationship with my father. Well, I had his old register, a copy of his naturalization papers, a copy of my U.S. birth certificate, which I thought would be enough. The trouble is that regulations stated that I needed originals, not copies, and then I needed them to be translated. This would have taken weeks to assemble, so I said… look, why would I have his old document and all this stuff if I wasn’t his son? The clerk could clearly see that I was not lying and gave me what I needed.
Remember, they want you to go away. Be prepared, trust your instincts and be persistent.
Edit: Another run in with the bureaucracy! I think I will log all future encounters on this post.
7-4-2016: I went to the gu-office to get a specific document about a family member and was denied, despite showing evidence of relation, confirmation of identity, and a previous version of the document. My request was rejected because the system does not list me as a relation. It should not list me as a relation because I was never registered as a Korean citizen. The staff ask me to accompany the family member in question, find another direct relation that can request the document for me, or get a whole bunch of US documents notarized and verified. This matter was resolved by going to the dong-office (which is a lower authority, and under the gu-office’s administration) and asking for the document with no hassle.