South Korea’s Dec. 19 presidential election will make history as the first to accept absentee ballots from voters living in Japan, including many long-term ethnic Korean residents denied a vote in Japanese elections. On Dec. 5 the South Korean Embassy opened its doors to voters, admitting them to a makeshift polling station inside. “Fill out ballots here,” said signs in Korean and Japanese affixed to a row of booths. After verifying voters’ identification, embassy staff explained what to do. “This is the first time I have ever voted in my life. My hands were shaking,” said 85-year-old Rhee Sang-bae, 85, whose eyes moistened as he spoke. Rhee had traveled by bus and train from Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture.
In 2009, a revision to South Korea’s law on elections for public office allowed absentee voting for citizens overseas.
In 2004, South Koreans in Japan had argued that being unable to vote was a violation of basic civil rights. Three years later, the Constitutional Court of Korea ruled that the law was unconstitutional–and it was amended.
However, the new system has flaws. The South Korean Embassy says roughly 462,000 South Koreans living in Japan are potentially eligible voters, as they either have special permanent residency status or are visiting Japan for work or college. But only 18,575, or 4 percent of the total, registered for an overseas absentee ballot in the South Korean parliamentary election of April 2012.