Swearing loyalty: Should new citizens pledge allegiance in a naturalisation oath?

Illiberal Origin, Liberal Future? Pledges of Allegiance for Native-Born and Naturalised Citizens in South Korea

Jaeeun Kim (University of Michigan)

Patti Lenard opens her essay by noting the increasing adoption of mandatory naturalisation oaths across the world, adding South Korea as one of the latest that followed suit in 2018. Heeding the call by Christine Hobden and Zara Goldstone and Avia Pasternak, I would like to show that the mandatory pledge of allegiance for naturalising immigrants in South Korea, and by extension the contestation over its defensibility, should be situated in the distinctive macro-historical and sociopolitical contexts quite different from the much-discussed Western cases. While my contribution considers only South Korea, analogous conditions apply to other rich democracies and immigrant-receiving countries in East Asia like Japan and Taiwan, implying the importance of expanding the geographical coverage of our discussion.

Western states in North America and Europe serve as a shared reference point for all posted essays but the one by Christine Hobden. These essays commonly highlight how powerful liberal democratic states, with the history of engaging in, or complicit with colonialism and neo-imperialist interventions, are responding to the immigration of ethnoracial and ethnoreligious others (who are often former colonial subjects), and whether and under what conditions the mandatory pledge of allegiance for naturalising immigrants can be justified given these contexts. Many authors pointed out the inequality that the mandatory pledge creates between native-born and naturalised citizens: Native-born citizens are not required to participate in the same kind of pledge; the refusal to participate does not lead to the loss of fundamental rights or the right to have these rights (in Hannah Arendt’s words) for them, in a world where the birthright lottery of citizenship makes a massive difference in individuals’ life chances, as highlighted by Ashwini Vasanthakumar.

This summary does not apply well to South Korea. The genealogy of the mandatory pledge of allegiance for naturalising immigrants in South Korea – and the controversy over its legitimacy – should be situated in its colonial history (1910–1945), post-colonial state-building intertwined with the Cold War (which was not quite cold in this region), the country’s post-1987 democratic consolidation that coincided with the increasing migration from the neighbouring countries, and finally, the complicated trajectory of its diaspora politics.

Pledges of Allegiance for Native-Born Citizens: Historical Trajectory

The Japanese colonial state and the authoritarian South Korean regime both imposed various kinds of mandatory pledges of allegiance on native-born Korean subjects/citizens. The salute to the flag, introduced at the turn of the twentieth century by American missionaries and the U.S.-educated political elites, became a sanctified ritual for nationalist elites after Japan occupied Korea. However, it was not the weak and fragmented provisional government in exile but the Japanese colonial state that made the salute to the flag, accompanied by the pledge of allegiance, an everyday presence in the lives of ordinary Koreans. With the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Government General required every colonial subject to perform Kyujo-Yohai (bowing to the East where the emperor was located) and recite the Pledge of the Loyal Subjects of Imperial Japan (Hwangguk sinmin sŏsa).

The postcolonial South Korean state inherited and updated this practice in the context of the all-out mobilisation for economic development and national security against the communist enemy to the North. This effort was especially strong after President Park Chung Hee, the military dictator, suspended the Constitution and dissolved the legislature in 1972. The pledge of allegiance that came to accompany the salute to the flag the same year reads as follows: “Before the proud T’aegŭkki [the name of the South Korean national flag], I firmly pledge to loyally dedicate all my body and heart to the eternal glory of the fatherland and the nation.” In 1978, the lowering of the national flag in the evening became another everyday ritual (literally, in this case): when the flag was lowered at the designated time with the national anthem playing out loud, every citizen on the street had to stand still and salute to the flag until the anthem was over. The refusal to participate in these various nationalistic rituals immediately made one a North Korea sympathizer and a threat to national security, vulnerable to the loss of fundamental civil rights. In addition to Jehovah’s Witnesses, political prisoners convicted of the violation of the National Security Law and the Assembly and Demonstration Act suffered the most severe consequences. The latter group was also forced (at times by torture) to submit the Pledge of Ideological Conversion (Sasangjŏnhyangsŏ) before their release from the prison, another practice inherited from the Japanese colonial state.

All these mandatory and “too hot” (Lior Erez) pledges of allegiance came to be contested, reformulated, or abolished as South Korea underwent democratic transition from 1987 onward. The lowering of the national flag was discontinued in 1989. The Pledge of Allegiance to the National Flag survived a challenge in 2007 with its content changed: “the fatherland and the nation” was replaced by “the free and just Republic of Korea”; and “dedicate all my body and heart” was swiped off. The Pledge of Ideological Conversion was also replaced by the Pledge to Obey the Law (Chunbŏpsŏyaksŏ) in 1998, which continued to be required for the parole, amnesty, and reinstatement of political prisoners. After the Constitutional Court ruled the practice “constitutional” in 2002, it was eventually abolished the next year, except for exemption from probation imposed on released political prisoners.

I would like to note that, when in place, the Pledge to Obey the Law was also required of ethnic Koreans who wanted to visit or return to the democratising homeland after having been banned from doing so for decades on national security grounds – most  representatively, ethnic Koreans in Japan who did not obtain South Korean or Japanese citizenship and were affiliated with the pro-North Korea ethnic organisation. As I have shown elsewhere, Cold War geopolitics powerfully shaped diaspora policies and politics in South Korea, making ethnic Koreans in Japan the target of propaganda and suspicion, and leaving those behind the Iron Curtain – in China and the Soviet Union – in willful oblivion until the late 1980s.

Pledges of Allegiance for Naturalized Citizens: Challenge and Reform

The controversy over the mandatory written oath required at the time of applying for naturalisation unfolded in these broader historical and sociopolitical contexts. While South Korea underwent a steady, if bumpy, democratic transition throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, it also transitioned from the major source of emigrants fleeing economic insecurity and political turmoil to an economic powerhouse attracting immigrants from the neighbouring countries. What is notable in this transformation is that ethnic Koreans from (former) communist countries like China and (to a lesser extent) former Soviet Republics – the descendants of colonial-era migrants who had long been contained behind the Iron Curtain – came to constitute the largest proportion of “foreign” migrants in South Korea. Approximately 30% of non-citizen residents in South Korea currently are Korean Chinese. Coethnic migrants also predominate among naturalised citizens. China has consistently topped the list of origin countries of the naturalised citizens over the last two decades or so; the majority of them have been ethnic Korean “returnees.” For example, 36.2% of those naturalised between 2016 and 2021 were Korean Chinese, about 78% of all naturalised citizens from China. In this context, the suspicion about the loyalty of naturalised citizens has not been directed to ethnoracial or ethnoreligious others, as has been the case in North America and Europe; it has rather been directed to coethnic brethren whom the newly affluent and democratic homeland began to embrace reluctantly, despite enduring geopolitical anxiety.

It is not surprising then that the Ministry of Justice relied on the familiar language of national security when it began to require a written pledge of allegiance for naturalisation applicants in 2011. Following the 2010 revision of the nationality law that began to tolerate multiple nationality selectively and conditionally, the Ministry of Justice put in place several measures to countervail the “lightening of citizenship,” such as requiring multiple citizenship holders to pledge to not exercise their foreign citizenship in South Korea. The mandatory oath that naturalisation applicants were obliged to sign at the time of application (not at the end of the naturalisation process) was another measure to make the acquisition of South Korean citizenship “weightier.” The oath included a passage about their pledge to “defend the basic liberal democratic order and pursue peaceful unification [between North and South Korea].” The Ministry of Justice justified the new requirement by invoking the fact that over 93% of naturalising immigrants were from (former) socialist countries such as China, former Soviet Republics, and Vietnam (Vietnamese naturalised citizens have been mostly female marriage migrants), singling them out as suspect citizens.

The challenge to this mandatory pledge was also couched in the familiar language of the struggle for democracy rather than the language of immigrant integration per se. Various civil society organisations accused the Ministry of Justice of bringing back the Pledge to Obey the Law through the backdoor and reviving the authoritarian legacy in the name of national security. This finding is in line with the argument made by Erin Chung among others that migrant rights activism in South Korea has drawn heavily on the repertoires and the moral authority of the relatively recent democratisation movement.

This contestation over the mandatory written oath is likely to have influenced the policy change in 2018 made by the new Center Left government – the one Lenard noted in her kickoff essay. The Ministry of Justice removed the controversial written oath from the application requirement. Instead, it began to require that naturalising immigrants verbally take an oath of allegiance, named “The Citizen’s Oath” (Kungminsŏnsŏ), before they received the certificate of naturalisation at a public ceremony. It was not just the mode of delivery (from written to verbal, from the backstage to the frontstage) and the timing of the oath (from the time of application to the end of the process) that changed through this reform. The content of the oath also became “thinner.” It now reads: “As a proud citizen of the Republic of Korea, I pledge to obey its Constitution and law and fulfil the citizen’s responsibilities and duties.” To the best of my knowledge, civil society protest against this new requirement was negligible. I would like to note that in 2019 the Ministry of Justice also removed the last vestige of the Pledge to Obey the Law, required for exemption from probation imposed on released political prisoners, after a former political prisoner brought a legal challenge.

Overall, the mandatory naturalisation oath put in place in 2018 was a liberal reform under the administration with stronger democratic credentials: a progress from the authoritarian past when native South Korean citizens were subject to various “hot” pledges of allegiance and the red scare was mobilised against potential enemies within the imagined community of the nation, both inside and outside the Korean peninsula. It remains to be seen whether the mandatory naturalisation oath in South Korea can be freed from its illiberal and undemocratic origin and operate as a bulwark for robust liberal democracy, as Rainer Bauböck cautiously hopes.

Comparative Implications: East Asian Democracies

While my contribution considers only South Korea, similar dynamics are likely to shape the contestation over the legitimacy of the mandatory naturalisation oath in other rich democracies and immigrant-receiving countries in East Asia like Japan and Taiwan. They share the legacy of Japanese (colonial) rule, the heavy influence of Cold War geopolitics at the formative stage of postwar state-building, rapid economic development accompanied by migrant influx, and democratic consolidation that followed decades of authoritarian rule (a “soft” version in Japan). Without considering these factors, it would be impossible to explain who has been required to take the pledge of allegiance, what consequences the refusal to participate has brought, what form the challenge to these practices has taken, which migrant/minority group has driven naturalisation politics, and what signalling effect the mandatory naturalisation oath has had.

To illustrate, in Japan, the policies and politics of naturalisation have been essentially about the inclusion/exclusion of its Korean minority – former colonial subjects whose Japanese citizenship was categorically stripped in 1952 and whose naturalisation had been discouraged by all means. In Taiwan, migrants from mainland China have been the major source of anxiety and suspicion in immigration and citizenship policymaking. These coethnic migrants are required to jump through more hoops and take a few more years to acquire Taiwanese citizenship than migrants from other countries. The policies and politics of naturalisation vis-à-vis coethnic migrants in South Korea and Taiwan contrast with those in many countries in Central and Eastern Europe where coethnics are granted preferential treatment in citizenship acquisition and exempted from ordinary naturalisation requirements, including the mandatory naturalisation oath. Our discussion on the defensibility of the naturalisation oath in democratic, undemocratic, and democratising states would become more precise if we expand the comparative horizon and consider these distinctive configurations in East Asian democracies along with other much-discussed cases in the West.

*I’d like to thank Chulwoo Lee, Sung Ho Kim, Rainer Bauböck, and Patti Lenard for their comments on the earlier version of this essay. The writing of this essay was supported by the Laboratory Program for Korean Studies through the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the Korean Studies Promotion Service of the Academy of Korean Studies [AKS-2018-LAB-2250001].