Countries Covered: China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea and South Korea

A.  Laws

  •  Citizenship Law (jus sanguinis/jus soli)

All the nationality laws in East Asia operate through a jus sanguinis structure. In two states (Japan and South Korea) children born to a national parent or parents will be considered a citizen, no distinction is made between children born within or outside of the country. The citizenship laws of three states (China, Mongolia and North Korea) provide some differential treatment between children born within or outside of the country.

The application of the citizenship laws in East Asia is further complicated by household registration systems which simultaneously operate, the impact of these systems on the realization of citizenship is specifically notable in China and Japan. This extra administrative layer complicates the task of mapping laws within these countries as citizenship laws form only a component of a larger web of laws and policies that impact an individual’s ability to gain and prove their citizenship.

East Asia is the only sub-region in the Asia-Pacific without discriminatory provisions (either ethnic or gender based) present in the citizenship laws of any state.

  • Treaty ratification status

South Korea is the only country in the region party to either of the Stateless Conventions, having ratified the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. Three states, China, Japan and South Korea are all contracting states to the Refugee Convention and Protocol. All states are party to ICESCR, ICERD, CEDAW and CRC.

Despite ratification of CEDAW South Korea retains a reservation against article 9 which provides for the equal right to acquire, change or retain nationality for women and the equal right to pass nationality onto their children. The ICCPR is ratified by all states except China. In 1997 North Korea attempted to withdraw from the ICCPR, this act was rejected by the Secretary-General due to the Covenant’s lack of withdrawal provision.

B.  Population

  • Reported stateless persons

Countries in East Asia collectively reported stateless population of 750 people to UNHCR in 2021. East Asia is the only sub-region to see a reduction in their stateless population with 160 fewer stateless persons reported compared to 2020. Three of the five countries in the region reported small populations — Japan (531), Mongolia (17) and South Korea (202) — while China reported zero persons and North Korea was not included in the report. Despite the  low figures reported by South Korea to UNHCR, a recent mapping report found that as many 10,032 stateless persons could be residing within South Korea.

UNHCR has specifically noted China as a country in which they have information regarding stateless people but no reliable data.

  •  Persons at risk of statelessness

All states in East Asia have high reported rates of birth registration between 90-100%.  However, the impact of household registration systems prevalent in East Asia and administrative policies complicates the picture, especially for children of irregular migrants. China, South Korea and to a lesser extent Japan have notable issues of children of irregular migrants and trafficked persons being unable or unwilling to access birth registration. For example, there may be as many as 30,000 children born in China to North Korean mothers who had been trafficked into China, and 20,000 children of irregular migrants in South Korea who remain unregistered and at risk of statelessness.

  •  Undetermined nationalities

While reported figures of stateless populations may be low in East Asia, thousands of individuals remain with undetermined nationalities. China’s 2010 census showed that at least 13 million children lacked household registration (hukou) preventing them from accessing the full rights of citizens. In Japan’s 2020 census the nationality of 131,684 foreigners in Japan was categorized as “stateless and name of country not reported”. Japan is the only country in East Asia with English-language and publicly accessible census statistics that include a stateless/undetermined citizenship status of foreigners.

The status of ethnic minority groups in both Japan and Mongolia remains uncertain. As many as 26,312 ethnic Koreans in Japan remain categorized as “citizens of the Korean Peninsula (Korea or Chōsen)” and hold the status of “special permanent residents”. In Mongolia, thousands of ethnic Kazakhs have faced administrative barriers to reacquiring citizenship, which they lost in the early 1990s.

  • Stateless Refugees

Collectively states in East Asia only reported 16 statelessness refugees to the UNHCR in 2021, with the figures coming from two states, Japan (11) and South Korea (5).[23] As a region East Asia has a small refugee population comparative to the other regions of Asia.

C.  Stakeholders

Ten former SNAP members were based in East Asia, with six being active members of the network.

Active members of SNAP included:

  • China and Taiwan:
    • Clarence, Taiwan Association for Human Rights
    • Zita Jeng, Union of Undocumented Immigrants (Taiwan)
    • Dr Guofu Liu School of Law, Beijing Institute of Technology
  • Japan:
    • Wawine Yamashita, Japan Stateless Research Group
    • Hajime Akiyama, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science
    • Osamu Arakaki, International Christian University Japan (ICU)

Japan appears to be the only country within East Asia with a network of persons with lived experience, with the Japanese Stateless Network formed in 2009 and registered in 2011.

Japan also possesses an informal network of NGOs, researchers and practitioners working on statelessness being the Study Group on Statelessness (‘Statelessness Research Group Japan’) founded in 2014.

NFA has one partner based in South Korea being Jeannie Kim, Duroo (association of Public Interest Law/Universal Birth Registration Network).


D.  Causes of Statelessness

  • Lack of legal safeguards

Protections exist in the nationality laws of all five countries in East Asia which provide citizenship to children born to stateless parents. Under the nationality laws of China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea these children are entitled to an automatic grant of nationality, in Mongolia they can access Mongolian citizenship after reaching 16 years of age.

Foundlings have the right to citizenship at birth in Japan, Mongolia, North Korea and South Korea. No protection is provided for foundlings under the citizenship law of China. Prior to the dissolution of China’s one child policy the country had over 500,000 registered orphans, in 2021, this figure had reduced to 190,000.

In Mongolia, a lack of legal safeguards around renunciation of nationality, and the bar on dual nationality has left many ethnic Kazakh stateless.

  •  Citizenship stripping

Following the end of the Second World War, and Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean peninsula approximately 52,000 ethnic Koreans were stripped of Japanese citizenship. In 2021, more than 26,000 persons and their descendants have not resolved their citizenship status resolved.

In both Taiwan and South Korea, foreign spouses whose marriage is determined to be a ‘sham’ or ‘fraudulent’ have been stripped of their citizenship and rendered stateless (as both states have required the renunciation of one’s former nationality prior to gaining the nationality of their spouse).

  • Administrative barriers

While protection may exist in the citizenship laws of most states, administrative barriers to accessing citizenship and the application of the citizenship laws in East Asia is fundamentally complicated by household registration systems which simultaneously operate. The central role played by household registration in verifying one’s citizenship and realizing the associated rights cannot be overstated. The impact of these systems on the realization of citizenship is specifically notable in China, Japan and South Korea among children of migrants, ethnic minority groups and those of uncertain nationalities.