By Kwang-Tae Kim
The Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — 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 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 U.S.-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 Keum-ja Bae 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, includings 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 her North Korean siblings, who agreed to let her initiate a lawsuit seeking their share of the father’s wealth, the lawyer said.
It is 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.
Bae declined 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 in 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 South Korean 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, said 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 approximately 30 percent of his estate, Bae said.
Seoul Family Court was to hear a request for DNA analysis of Yoon’s North Korean and South Korean children to confirm they share the same father. A judge postponed the hearing to Aug. 12.
“I will decide whether to accept the request for DNA tests on that day,” Lee Hyun-gon, the judge of Seoul Family Court who will handle the case next month, told The Associated Press, noting he delayed a hearing to give time to Yoon’s second wife and her four South Korean children to prepare for the hearing.
If DNA tests confirm they are Yoon’s children, they will be legally entitled to inherit the wealth, said Han Kyung-hwan, a spokesman for the Southern District Court in Seoul. ♦