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May 28, 2017

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Inheritance cases show pitfalls of Korean unification

SEOUL -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye's claim that reunification with North Korea could trigger an economic "bonanza" has been greeted with widespread skepticism — though not necessarily within the legal profession.

A recent series of landmark rulings in South Korean courts suggest a merger of North and South could unleash a wave of complex inheritance claims that would keep lawyers busy for years.

The latest case saw a Seoul court last month uphold the inheritance rights of a North Korean defector who escaped to the South in 2009.

The circumstances of the case were complex, involving three generations and the defector's South Korean-born father — surnamed Lee — who was captured by the North during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Lee's relatives in the South reported him missing and he was officially pronounced dead in 1977, allowing his share of the family inheritance to be distributed among his South Korean siblings.

Lee surfaced again in 2004 and actually met up with family members in China. He died in North Korea several years later, after which his daughter managed to escape to the South.

The importance of the ruling that upheld the daughter's subsequent claim to Lee's inheritance was its decision to waive the 10-year statute of limitations on such cases.

Presiding Judge Seo Young-hyo ruled that the division of the Korean peninsula amounted to a special circumstance to which the 10-year period could not be applied.

"Should the statute of limitations be applied in this case, it would amount to depriving North Koreans of their inheritance rights," he said.

Park Tae-Seung, the lawyer who represented the daughter, said her client's father had urged her to escape to the South and get in touch with the family there.

"But the relatives cold-shouldered her and refused to part with her share of the inheritance," Park said.

The court ordered the family to hand over about 15 percent of a 50,000 square meter plot of land in South Chungcheong province.

Generations of Claimants

Millions of Koreans were divided by the Korean War and although those who lived through the conflict are dying out, there are many second and third generation North Koreans who would have similar claims to that of Lee's daughter.

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