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[Survive & Thrive] Becoming a Korean

Being a naturalized Korean citizen comes in various forms, from marrying a local to having a special talent

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Feb. 14, 2023 - 14:21

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Survive & Thrive is a weekly series offering a guide to living in South Korea for those born outside of the country. – Ed.

According to the latest government data, there are 210,990 naturalized Koreans in South Korea, making up for roughly 0.4 percent of the population for the nation.

Each year, around 10,000 people become naturalized citizens, with recent figures being 11,752 in 2021, 13,400 in 2020 and 8,813 in 2019.

There are basically three types of naturalization: general, simple and special naturalization process. General naturalization, which requires a minimum five years of consecutive stay and a permanent address here, is the category most foreigners would fall into.

Simple and special processes are a shorter process allowed for those who meet certain criteria, such as blood or marriage ties to a Korean citizen.

For both general and simple naturalization, the law states that one must be a legal adult (aged 19 or older), have the ability to maintain a living and have knowledge of the Korean language, customs and culture. Having "good conduct" is also required.

The good conduct clause, although rarely brought up in the naturalization process, can make or break one’s chances at becoming a legal Korean citizen, as seen in the case of a Korean Canadian man whose request to obtain citizenship was thwarted in 2020 due to the Justice Ministry taking issues with his DUI charges.

Simple vs. special naturalization

Simple naturalization is what foreign spouses of Korean nationals would go through to gain citizenship here, but it also applies to those who have at least one parent who is a Korean national.

Special naturalization does not have a mandated residency period, but has other requirements such as having special skills or being of Korean heritage.

The latter is related to the South Korean nationality law, which is basically based on bloodlines. Anyone born of a South Korean mother or father is automatically granted citizenship at birth. Those who were born to a Korean national but have for some reason lost Korean nationality can apply for the special process, as they are technically reinstating their nationality.

While both simple and special naturalization have a clause related to the nationality of the applicant's parent, the difference between the two is the former is required to have at least parent who had been a South Korean national, while the latter requires one to have a parent who is currently of South Korean nationality.

Other people able to go through the special naturalization process are those who have or are expected to contribute greatly to South Korea's national interest through one's exceptional ability, who are referred to deliberation by the Nationality Deliberation Committee and the Ministry of Justice.

One such case is American-born Ra Guna -- born Ricardo Ratliffe -- a crucial player on the men’s national basketball team who gained dual citizenship through the special nationalization process.

The subsequent segments of the series will delve deeper into the details of naturalization, from specific cases, the biggest hurdles, and complications related to those not entitled to Korean “blood rights” stipulated by the law.

For full requirements and documents related to naturalization processes, one can look up related information on the government-run websites Easy to Find, Practical Law and Hi Korea.