Korea’s 1st American Korean lawmaker eyes key role in immigration policy

Doctor-turned-politician from US missionary family sees his dual identity advantage for South Korea-United States ties, North Korea negotiation.

Jung Min-kyung, Kim Arin

Jung Min-kyung, Kim Arin

The Korea Herald


File photo of People Power Party Rep. Ihn Yohan. PHOTO: THE KOREA HERALD

July 9, 2024

SEOUL – A loud, booming voice bellowed throughout the room in the National Assembly members’ office building in western Seoul. As he spoke with The Korea Herald, switching between fluent English and Korean, Rep. Ihn Yohan of the ruling People Power Party pointed to a Hanja idiom framed and hung on the wall of his office that translates as: “There is no place where more milk and honey flows than Suncheon.”

The city of Suncheon, the largest in South Jeolla Province, holds a special place in Ihn’s heart. It’s his hometown, and it’s where he plans to spend his retirement.

“The culture of hospitality in the Jeolla area is very similar to the hospitality in the Southern United States,” he said in an interview on Friday afternoon.

As reflected in his remarks, Ihn, 64, is one of a kind. Born in South Jeolla Province in 1959, he spent his childhood there after his father Hugh Linton, a US Navy officer and a 1950-53 Korean War veteran, decided to settle down in Korea to serve as an American missionary. Ihn’s paternal great-grandfather is Eugene Bell, who was also an American missionary who first arrived on the Korean Peninsula in 1895.

Continuing the family legacy that is deeply associated with Korea, Ihn is a doctor and the first Westerner to pass South Korea’s notorious medical license exam.

He is now the first-ever American Korean lawmaker in South Korea, where political circles are run by and dominated by ethnic Koreans, after being recently elected in the April 10 general elections.

Yet, Ihn is eyeing another major role to add to his ever-expanding resume: first-ever chief of the planned immigration agency, a key policy on the Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s agenda.

“It is incredibly important to launch the immigration agency. In a way, embracing multicultural families and helping them integrate into our culture will help us brace for acceptance of North Koreans upon reunification,” Ihn said, explaining the motivations behind his goal.

Immigrants staying here illegally should be provided with more pathways to citizenship as well, Ihn stressed, highlighting their roles in Korean society, which is currently facing a population crisis due to a low birth rate.

“Illegal foreign residents who are working in industries that struggle with labor shortage should be provided with more opportunities to become legal residents, as it would be beneficial to the Korean society in many ways, including tax collection,” he said.

His more short-term goal is to be elected as the People Power Party Supreme Council member at the upcoming party convention scheduled for July 23.

His role would be to aid the next leader of the conservative ruling party as they seek to forge a path in a time where the opposition bloc has managed to secure a dominant position in the single-chamber, 300-seat Assembly for another four years.

“The party leader should be someone who is not confrontational and is capable of communicating well with the president,” Ihn said, saying that he speaks with the president often.

“After our party’s general election loss, I told (Yoon) that I was to blame for the defeat. But the president merely chose to console me – he doesn’t have the characteristics of a politician, but that is one of his biggest assets.”

Ihn, who was also a professor at Severance Hospital where he received his medical education, urged a change in the way the government has been handling its negotiations with the country’s doctors.

Early this year, with a few months left until the Assembly elections in April, the government announced a hike in the national quota at medical schools to address what it called an impending shortage of doctors.

The policy has been met with fierce protest from medical professionals, who say working conditions, not quotas, are the reason fewer doctors are going into “essential fields” like pediatrics.

Ihn said the government’s row with doctors, which as a group tend to vote conservative, “clearly had an adverse impact” in the election in April. “As they say, do not get your doctor mad at you,” he said.

“They are the bedrock of the South Korean public health system, one of the top-notch in the world.”

Ihn said as the government remains deadlocked in the talks with doctors, the key is not about pushing ahead with the policy, no matter how justified.

“For three years of (the) COVID-19, doctors and nurses fought the harshest battles on the front lines,” he said. “This should not be how we treat heroes who return worn out from a war.”

He said that in the event of a possible next pandemic, it would be doctors once again who come to the country’s rescue, calling for a swift reconciliation.

“We have to appreciate their sacrifices, recognize their hard work and listen to their demands. We will depend on doctors to fight by the patients’ side should, God forbid, another public health emergency strike.”

Before he was actively involved in politics, he said he once dreamt of heading the Korean Red Cross to continue the family legacy of humanitarian work in North Korea. Now with the platform that he has in the Assembly, he said he sees “a unique role he could play,” given his background and career.

He said his family — whose Eugene Bell Centennial Foundation has for decades committed to providing medical and other aid to North Korea — has “a very good reputation” in the North.

“Our family foundation has delivered 40 billion won worth of medical supplies to North Korea. Over time, the foundation has taken some seven million X-ray exams, which is equivalent to a third of the North Korean population having been examined,“ he said.

Over 37 years of his time as a doctor, Ihn himself traveled to North Korea 29 times to help tackle the tuberculosis endemic there.

Ihn said his American veneer gives him an edge as a negotiator when sitting across the table from North Korea.

“When North Koreans see me, they think they are dealing with an American. They get the impression that with me, they can get through to the US and South Korea at once,” he said.

He said if he were to be called to play a role in the making of a thaw he hoped would happen between the Koreas, he was willing to step up. “I would fly to Pyongyang, or a third country for that matter, at once,” he said.

He said he believes in the Sunshine policy-like engagement approach to North Korea, minus the financial aid that could grow their weapons program.

“We have enough excess rice to go around that we can afford to share with starving brothers in the North. It’s good for everybody,” he said. “You have the North Korean regime, and you have the North Korean people.”

Ihn shared that lately he has been reading former US President Donald Trump’s 1987 memoir, The Art of the Deal.

He said he was revisiting the book in anticipation of a possible shift in the security environment surrounding the country, by the time the next leadership of the ruling party takes off.

He said that his dual identity as both South Korean and American could be used to South Korea’s advantage.

“South Korea is no longer a follower. The US needs us as much as we need them. We stand as equals,” he said. “I’m playing for team South Korea.”

Ihn, former director of the Severance Hospital International Health Care Center, served as the chief of the ruling party’s short-lived reform committee, which was tasked with renewing the party to advance its chances ahead of the general elections. It disbanded in early December last year.

The naturalized South Korean served as an interpreter for protesters and the foreign press during the Gwangju Democratic Uprising in May 1980.

The great-grandfather of Ihn, also known as John Linton, was Eugene Bell, a Southern Presbyterian missionary who taught and built schools and medical centers in North and South Jeolla provinces during the Japanese colonial period. His grandfather, William Linton, also a missionary and an educator, participated in South Korea’s movement for independence from Japan. His father, Hugh Linton, fought in the Battle of Inchon as a lieutenant colonel in the US Navy and was another missionary here.

Ihn was part of the transition team of then-President-elect Park Geun-hye in 2013.

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