DPRK citizens sue for inheritance in ROK (Part 1)

UPDATE 6 (2013-8-1): The South Korean Supreme Court  has recognized for the first time North Koreans as blood relatives of a South Korean family. The court’s decision will allow them to claim their share of their father’s inheritance. According to the New York Times:

A doctor by training, Mr. Yoon left 10 billion won, or $8.9 million, worth of property when he died in 1987.

As his South Korean children moved to inherit the properties, his North Korea-born daughter, now 78, filed a lawsuit in 2009, claiming that they should share the fortune with Mr. Yoon’s children in the North.

She went to extraordinary lengths to win her case. She found a Korean-American who was willing to travel to the isolated North to find, with the help of the North Korean government, her siblings in the North and collect DNA evidence, including hair and fingernail samples, and she also received videotaped statements from them allowing her to represent them in a South Korean court of law.

In a 2011 lower-court ruling, which was formally upheld by the Supreme Court on Wednesday, the North Koreans were recognized as biological children of Mr. Yoon.

The court also recognized the North Koreans’ right to hire a South Korean lawyer and file a lawsuit in the South, as well as their rights to a portion of the inheritance from their father.

Despite the ruling, the North Korean children are unlikely to get their money anytime soon.

In anticipation of the cases like Mr. Yoon’s, South Korea enacted a law last year stipulating that any inheritance money won by North Koreans be kept in the care of a court-appointed custodian and sent to the North only with government permission. With tensions high with the North after its Feb. 12 nuclear test, South Korea keeps tight restrictions on cash transmissions to the North.

But legal experts say that if the North Koreans file another lawsuit claiming that this law violates their rights under the Constitution of South Korea, it can open a whole new legal battle over the ban on cash transmissions.

The South Korean Constitution includes North Korea in the South Korean territory, essentially giving all North Koreans citizenship in South Korea.

There are two other similar cases of which I am aware. See here and here.

UPDATE 5 (2012-12-1): The Hankyoreh fills us in on how the case is proceeding:

Mrs. Yoon, 77, is a native of South Pyongan province in what is today North Korea. During the Korean War, her father took her, his eldest daughter, with him to South Korea, leaving her two brothers and three sisters behind. He went on to remarry and have four more children, two boys and two girls. By the time he passed away in 1997, he had amassed a sizable fortune in real estate and other holdings. But during the registration of the inheritance in 2008, a battle ended up breaking out between Mrs. Yoon and her half-siblings.

She learned from an American missionary that four of her full siblings are still alive in North Korea. She also received a 2010 court ruling confirming that they were the offspring of her father. After filing suit for a portion of the inheritance on their behalf, she finally received a settlement in which they would receive 3.25 billion won (US$3 million) in real estate and cash from their half-siblings.

Mrs. Yoon spent 690 million won (US$637,400) of the money on her litigation, eventually coming away with 2.3 billion won (US$2.12 million) after signing a sales contract in which she sold her real estate to her North Korean siblings for 2.5 billion won (US$2.3 million). She also signed a contract stating that she would lease and hold their real estate until when they could manage it themselves, with the maintenance costs counting as rent.

Last May, the Act on Special Cases Concerning Family Relations and Inheritances Between North and South Koreans went into effect. The act stipulates that North Koreans who acquire South Korean property through inheritance request the court appointment of a property custodian. Mrs. Yoon tried to get appointed as property manager for her siblings in North Korea.

But the court gave the status instead to a non-relative, an attorney identified by the surname Kim.

Park Hee-geun, judge for the 21st family affairs division at Seoul Family Court, ruled on Nov. 30 that it was “proper for the efficient management of the considerable assets acquired by the siblings in North Korea that a neutral attorney be appointed as property manager instead of Mrs. Yoon, who has a conflict of interest.”

A court official said the decision to appoint a neutral party was made because Mrs. Yoon was suspected of spending or concealing part of the inheritance ahead of the law going into effect and before she requested to be appointed property manager.

“This is the first appointment of a property custodian since the law went into effect, and it clearly shows the legitimacy and necessity of the law,” the official added.

UPDATE 4 (2011-7-14): The Choson Ilbo is worried about the legal implications of the finding:

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.

UPDATE 3 (2011-7-13): It appears as if the North Koreans were granted an undisclosed amount of the estate in mediation. According to the Korea Herald:

Four North Koreans from the same family have come to share assets left by their late father with their half-brothers and sisters in South Korea under mediation by a Seoul court in the first case of its kind.

The North Koreans, surnamed Yoon, had filed a lawsuit against their South Korean stepmother and four half-brothers and sisters in February 2009 demanding they split 10 billion won ($9.35 million) worth of assets left by their father who died in the South.

The Seoul Central District Court on Tuesday said the South Korean family agreed to give part of the disputed real estate from their father to the North Koreans along with some of their inherited assets in cash.

The court did not announce the exact amount of assets owed to the North Koreans, citing an agreement between the two sides not to disclose details of the deal mediated by the court.

Several groups of North Koreans have filed similar lawsuits at South Korean courts as the country’s Constitution considers the entire Korean Peninsula as its national territory. But the group involved in Tuesday’s agreement became the first to win partial ownership of assets left by a relative who defected to the South.

The father, who ran a hospital in North Korea, crossed the border to the South right after the Korean War began in 1950, taking only his eldest daughter with him. He had four other children with his South Korean wife and died in 1987.

The eldest daughter later found her North Korean family with the help of an American missionary who traveled between the two Koreas. The family sent letters of attorney, videotapes with their images and hair samples to the sister in the South via the missionary. Based on the materials, the North Koreans filed two lawsuits with South Korean courts ― one asking for a split of the father’s leftover assets and the other seeking court confirmation of their biological relationship with the father.

Last year, the Seoul Family Court acknowledged the blood relationship between the four North Koreans and the deceased, citing DNA test results. But the South Korean family appealed the decision.

The North Koreans are thought to have delegated the authority to manage the real estate and money from their father to their eldest biological sister in the South.

The North Koreans’ lawyer Bae Geum-ja confirmed that there will be no cross-border transmission of the assets.

To cope with possible property disputes between South and North Koreans, Seoul’s Justice Ministry said it plans to legislate a law restricting North Koreans from taking their share of inherited assets out of the South even if they are granted ownership.

Read previous posts on this story below:

UPDATE 2 (2011-2-9): The Donga Ilbo offers an update on how the case is proceeding:

A local court yesterday failed to find a middle ground for four North Korean siblings, surnamed Yoon, who are claiming the right to inherit their defector father’s 10 billion won ($9 million) fortune against their South Korean half-siblings and stepmother.

Negotiations between the two sides broke down after 30 minutes, when they failed to narrow differences. The trial will resume on Feb. 18.

The four North Korean siblings have demanded that their four South Korean half-siblings and stepmother give them the entire 10 billion won because they say their father had transferred valuable assets such as real estate to the ones in the South.

The South Korean side rejected the demand.

According to the Seoul Central District Court, the father was married in Sunchon, North Korea, in 1933 and had four children.

He left three children and his wife behind during the Korean War, fleeing to the South with his eldest daughter, who is now 76.

Yoon remarried a South Korean woman in 1959 and had four more children. Yoon died in 1987, leaving behind the 10 billion won.

After Yoon died, the eldest daughter found her siblings in the North with the help of missionaries who traveled to North Korea.

The North Korean family sought an injunction, which the court approved in December 2008, to prevent their South Korean relatives from selling the father’s real estate after missionaries told them that their father, who had been a physician, had amassed the fortune after defecting.

In February 2009, the North Korean siblings filed an inheritance claim against their South Korean half-siblings and stepmother.

In November 2010, the Seoul Family Court ruled in favor of the North Korean children, who had filed a paternity suit that proved the man had fathered them. It was the first time North Koreans has won a paternity suit in a South Korean court.

The daughter who had defected with her father and represents the inheritance rights of the North Korea siblings, demanded a South Korean half-brother, who is representing the relatives in the South, to give them the 10 billion won because they say the South Korean siblings received other assets.

But a South Korean half-brother claimed their father already gave an inheritance to the four North Korean siblings by transferring ownership of 660-square-meter (7,104 square feet) piece of land to an elder sister in the North 30 years ago. That sister countered “that’s not enough.”

UPDATE 1 (2011-1-11): The South Korean government is trying to block the inheritance statutorily. According to Yonhap:

South Korea plans to enforce a special law next year that will effectively limit the transfer of local wealth owned by North Korean citizens to the communist country, the government said Tuesday.

The justice ministry said in a preannouncement of legislation that the new law permits family members living in North Korea to demand their share of an inheritance left behind by a family member in the South through legal channels.

It said, however, that any transfer of funds outside of South Korea must be approved by Seoul, with violators to face criminal charges.

All wealth acquisitions by a North Korean citizen must also be reported to the South Korean government.

“The measures that should go into effect in January 2012 reflect the divided nature of South and North Korea and the need to tightly monitor movement of money going to Pyongyang,” the ministry said.

The measures are needed since there have been cases where North Korean citizens have won inheritance suits in court by using a legal representative with such instances likely to go up in the future.

Seoul has halted most cooperation programs with the North after the sinking of a South Korean warship near the inter-Korean sea border in March, with relations taking a turn for the worse following the shelling of a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea by the communist country in late November.

Authorities said that there will be a limit imposed on how much money a North Korean relative may demand and that legal precedence will be given to protecting families in South Korea, even if man or a woman who left behind spouses or children in North Korea did not go through proper a divorce process.

Seoul does not permit bigamy, but because there was no way for a person in the South to know if his family was alive or to make contact, legal protection will be extended for a second marriage that took place in South Korea.

In addition, the special law will outline that all wealth-related legal suits filed by a North Korea citizen or their representatives must be handled in a South Korean court.

ORIGINAL POST (2009-7-22): According to the Assoicated Press (via Philadelphia Star):

A rare lawsuit filed by four North Korean siblings staking claim to their late South Korean father’s fortune is making its way through the South Korean court system, closely watched by legal experts who say it could inspire other Korean families divided by war six decades ago.

The father, a doctor identified only by his family name, Yoon, had six children in North Korea when war between the communist North and the US-allied South broke out on the Korean peninsula in 1950. He joined millions of Koreans in fleeing south during the fighting, taking only his eldest child with him, a lawyer handling the case said.

After the border dividing the nations was sealed, he never saw the rest of his family again, lawyer Bae Keum-ja said in Seoul as she prepared for an upcoming court hearing. He tried, unsuccessfully, to bring his wife and remaining children to the South, she said.

Yoon remarried and had four children in South Korea. He died in 1987, leaving behind a substantial inheritance, including land and property valued at some 10 billion won ($8 million), Bae said.

The two Koreas technically remain at war because they signed a cease-fire in 1953, not a peace treaty. North Korea remains largely cut off from the outside world, making it nearly impossible for the average Korean to communicate by telephone, e-mail or letter.

After years of knowing little about the fate of her family in the North, Yoon’s eldest daughter, now in her 70s, learned from a Korean-American missionary that her mother died in 1997 — but four siblings were still alive, Bae said.

She was put into contact with the North Korean siblings, who agreed to let her initiate a lawsuit seeking their share of the father’s wealth, the lawyer said.

It’s not the first North Korean inheritance case heard in South Korean courts, Bae said. She handled a similar case in 2001 that was settled out of court, declining to say how her North Korean clients won.

But this case could set a precedent among divided families at a time when tensions are running high over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Over the years, some 127,000 South Koreans have asked for government help locating family members in the North, according to South Korea’s Red Cross.

“If the North Korean plaintiffs win the case, it would be a dramatic turning point in an inheritance issue and will open a floodgate of similar lawsuits,” said Choi Eun-suk, a professor of North Korean legal affairs at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.

Despite the country’s division, the Constitution defines the territory of the Republic of Korea, South Korea’s official name, as encompassing “the Korean peninsula and its adjacent islands” — theoretically giving North Koreans certain rights in the South as well.

The Yoon family’s legal process began in December, with the Yoons winning an injunction from Seoul Central District Court banning the sale of the father’s land and other property, according to court spokesman Kim Seong-soo.

A formal lawsuit filed at the same court in February sued Yoon’s second wife and the couple’s four South Korean children for about 30 percent of his estate, lawyer Bae said.

Seoul Family Court was to hear Wednesday a request for DNA analysis of Yoon’s North Korean and South Korean children to confirm they share the same father, but a judge postponed the hearing to August.

If DNA tests confirm they are Yoon’s children, they will be legally entitled to inherit the wealth, court spokesman Han Kyung-hwan said.

And according to Yonhap:

A Seoul court on Wednesday confirmed a paternal relationship between four North Koreans and their father in South Korea, a ruling that could legitimize the children’s claim to a family inheritance of more than US$8 million.

In the first paternity suit involving the divided states, the Seoul Family Court said the North Koreans are the children of a man who had settled in South Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War.

The father, identified only by his family name Yoon, had come to the South with one of his five children. He remarried and had four more children with his second wife.

The siblings in the North filed suits in February last year, demanding their portion of the inheritance their father, who died in 1987, left behind. The assets, mostly real estate, were valued at 10 billion won ($8.6 million).

The inheritance suit was filed on behalf of the North Koreans by an unidentified member of a civic group who frequently visited the North for relief activities.

Court proceedings on the inheritance were put on hold to wait for the ruling on the paternity suit.

The Seoul Family Court had accepted the plaintiffs’ request to forbid Yoon’s South Korean wife from disposing of the property and requested a Seoul hospital to conduct a DNA test using hair strands and fingernails. The results that came out in June identified the four North Koreans as related with Yoon’s children in the South by blood.

Read the full stories here:
Inheritance fight pits two Koreas
Donga Ilbo
Koo Hui-lyung

S. Korea to limit transfer of wealth by N. Korean citizens

North Koreans suing to inherit from late South Korean father
Associated Press (via Philadelphia Star)

N. Koreans win paternity suit in ongoing inheritance feud with siblings in S. Korea
Kim Eun-jung


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