|A Korean living in Australia votes at the Consulate General of Korea in Sydney for the general election in 2016. / Korea Times file|
By Kang Seung-woo
Voting of overseas Koreans for the upcoming general election is facing major setbacks as the nation's election watchdog has decided to suspend polling activities in 17 countries hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the National Election Commission (NEC), the voting process will be put on hold at 23 diplomatic missions in 17 countries, meaning 18,392 Koreans living in those countries will not be able to cast their ballots for the April 15 general election.
Earlier, more than 177,000 Koreans in 119 countries applied to register to vote in the proportional representation election, with the voting initially being scheduled from April 1 to 6.
The 17 are Germany, Spain, Ireland, Britain, the Kyrgyz Republic, France, Ghana, South Africa, Nepal, India, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Ecuador, Honduras, Colombia, the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam and Italy ― the countries where lockdowns and movement restrictions have been implemented to prevent further spread of the virus.
However, the number could increase as the NEC is keeping close tabs on the United States, which has become the country with the most confirmed cases in the world.
"After monitoring how the situation develops in several regions, including the eastern part of the U.S., we will suspend the process if concluding we will not be able to guarantee voters' health and safety," an NEC official said.
Earlier this month, the NEC decided not to hold voting in Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, due to the lockdown and travel restrictions.
Also, the NEC has decided to shorten the period of overseas voting in another 52 countries to April 1 to 4.
In response to the suspension, some Korean communities in Europe call on the government to come up with countermeasures that will allow them to exercise their voting rights until the eve of the Election Day.
Voting count at diplomatic missions
The coronavirus pandemic is also raising the possibility that the counting of overseas Koreans' votes will be conducted at diplomatic missions rather than the ballots being sent directly to Korea.
If this happens, it will be the first such time since overseas voting was introduced in 2012 for the 19th National Assembly election.
Even in some of the countries where the voting will be held, it could be difficult for the ballot papers to be sent to Korea for counting due to reduced or suspended flight operations.
As a result, the NEC is exploring various measures including bringing the ballots back to Korea via a third country or counting them at the diplomatic missions.
According to the Election Law, ballots are sent to each voter's district in Korea and counted on Election Day by the election watchdog. However, when a natural disaster, war, riot or any other similar event occurs and ballot boxes cannot arrive by the deadline at 6 p.m., an overseas voting committee is allowed to count them there. The committee is made up of five people among Korean residents in the area ― one picked by the NEC, three by political parties and one by the head of the diplomatic mission.
"In preparation for a possible failure to send ballots to Korea, we have a contingency plan, or counting them at diplomatic missions, despite still needing NEC approval," said a senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"A decision on whether to count ballots here or there will be made after the foreign ministry receives reports from each diplomatic mission about their situations."
According to the NEC, it is set to pick areas to tally votes at diplomatic missions as late as April 11 in a move to avoid disruption of the election.