North Korean defectors will be able to obtain court approval to divorce spouses not residing in the South, as a new law came into effect Tuesday.
The Seoul Family Court said yesterday it will expedite legal proceedings for 223 pending divorce cases filed by North Korean refugees living in South Korea.
Existing family law stipulates that an individual seeking divorce must undergo court arbitration with the couple in attendance. The government revised the Protection and Resettlement for North Korean Defectors Act on Jan. 26 to plug the loophole.
A special provision has been added to the law, allowing the court to proceed with divorce cases only if the petitioner proves that his or her spouse is not residing in South Korea.
The South is seeing an increasing number of North Korean defectors fleeing poverty and human rights abuses. More than 10,000 North Koreans have been granted South Korean citizenship as of Feb. 16, the Unification Ministry said.
Since 2003, 232 North Koreans have filed for divorces but only nine cases were heard. One application was accepted and eight were dismissed.
The court suspended decisions for the remaining 223 cases because of the lack of a specific law, the court said.
It is still unclear whether South Korea should recognize marriages registered in North Korea, which the Constitution defines as part of its territory.
According to the revised bill, the plaintiff must submit to the court a letter by the unification minister confirming that his or her spouse is not residing in the South.
The court will post a public notice of the application on its online bulletin board, and can proceed with the case two months later.
Under current law, spouses must be notified of the petition for divorce before any legal proceedings can take place. For defectors, the two-month public notice period will be the equivalent of notification.
In 2004, a court ruled in favor of a 30-year-old female North Korean defector seeking a divorce and parental rights.
Officials at Korea Legal Aid Corp. said that a total of 115 defectors were given support to file petitions in 2005-2006, of which 36 were petitions for divorce.
Among the defectors, a 37-year-old woman identified by her surname Jeon filed for a divorce after running away from home due to domestic violence. Her husband beat her and had extra-marital affairs because she could not have children, she said.
It was difficult for Jeon to start a new life here with another man because of her marital status, the KLAC said.
“The cases can be heard in court only if the plaintiffs are able to obtain authorization from the Unification Ministry that their spouses are not defectors as well,” a judge at the Seoul Family Court said.
“Submitting the documents do not mean they can all get divorced. That is decided by the judges who will make the final decision after hearing the facts of the case.”
By Cho Ji-hyun
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