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Inside North Korea

Inheritance System in N. Korea


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After the death of Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee last month, industry sources estimate that his heirs, including his son and Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, will have to pay 10.6 trillion won, which is about 9.5 billion US dollars, as inheritance tax. 

We can’t help but wonder if there is any kind of an inheritance system in North Korea. It’s hard to imagine such a system in the North, as socialism does not recognize private property in principle. Let’s hear from lawyer Oh Hyun-jong. 

In brief, an inheritance system does exist in North Korea. Socialist countries and thinkers have long called for the abolishment of the inheritance system. Karl Marx also agreed on that. 

The former Soviet Union interpreted this view as the need to return all private property to society and abolished the inheritance law in 1918, right after the Bolshevik Revolution. But it reintroduced the law in 1920. East Germany also recognized the right to inherit personal belongings. 

In North Korea, the civil law recognizes private property and inheritance in part. There are three types of ownership—ownership by the state, by social and cooperative groups and by individuals. So, individual ownership is recognized, at least on legal grounds. Initially, North Korea did not acknowledge the inheritance system, claiming that it would perpetuate exploitation from capitalism. But later, the country made a distinction between individual property and family, and it recognizes the inheritance of individual property.

So, individuals may possess property in North Korea. They may own property that is distributed as a result of labor, or wage, to be more exact, additional supplies provided by the state or society, productions from side jobs such as those from kitchen gardens. They can also own assets from inheritance or gift, houses, goods for domestic and cultural use, daily supplies and cars. Individual possession of land and houses, among others, is regulated under law. 

North Korea’s land law prohibits local residents from owning land. But they may possess productions they’ve cultivated at collective farms. Speaking of houses, the central government distributes them to people based on some standards. According to Article 50 of the civil law, North Korean residents do not have the right to own houses and they only have the right use them. 

As an exception, they can possess individual houses that are not provided by the state or state enterprises, but those under individual names that have been handed down from ancestors. 

However, the proportion of those houses is extremely small. 

Specifics of the right to inherit private property are stated in the inheritance law that was revised in 2002. If individuals are deprived of their property illegally, they can file a civil suit and claim the restoration of the property. 

In the North, it is possible to inherit property that belongs to individuals, but there is no inheritance or gift tax. That is because land and buildings are not included in inherited property. Meanwhile, parents’ houses are generally handed over to their children who live with them. That is to say, there is little property the state can charge tax on. 

In legal inheritance, persons become inheritors in the order of spouse, sons and daughters, adopted children, unborn children, parents, foster parents and step-parents. Lawyer Oh tells us more about North Korea’s inheritance law. 

Under the North Korean inheritance law, a person who severely abused or failed to take care of the testator, a person who forges a will on inheritance and a person who, by fraud or coercion, causes the testator to leave a will on inheritance shall not become the inheritor. 

Under the 2002 revision, people may inherit houses, automobiles, money, savings, books, household goods and daily necessities. If there are two or more inheritors of the same rank, their shares of inheritance shall be equally divided. But inheritors who supported the testator while he or she was alive and those who are not capable enough to work and earn a small income may receive more inheritance. On the contrary, those who neglected their duty to support the deceased may receive less. 

A testator may give his or her property to a person who is not an inheritor. In that case, at least half of the inherited property shall be reserved for his or her spouse, children and parents, and one-third or more of the property for grandchildren, grandparents and siblings. 

If there is no inheritor, a government agency in charge of residents’ affairs shall designate an administrator of the inherited property.  

The Korean War separated many family members across the heavily fortified inter-Korean border. What if children in North Korea claim the right to inherit property of their parents in the South? A similar case actually occurred. For the first time in the division of Korea, North Korean citizens’ right to inherit their deceased father’s property in South Korea was recognized after a trial. 

A man who ran a hospital in North Korea fled to South Korea during the Korean War. At the time, he only brought his eldest daughter with him, leaving his wife and other children behind in the North. In South Korea, he remarried and had four children. He died in 1987. Then, his North Korea-born daughter found her siblings in the North with the help of a missionary. Through the missionary, she received their hair samples for DNA evidence and their videotaped statements that would allow her to represent them in a South Korean court. Based on these, she filed a lawsuit in 2009, claiming that her siblings in the North should share the property worth over 9 million US dollars left by their father. The South Korean court acknowledged the North Koreans as biological children of the deceased man and therefore recognized their rights to a portion of his inheritance.

However, even if the North Koreans had sought to get the inherited property at the time, there was no legal basis to undergo the procedure. South Korea introduced a relevant law to dispel growing concerns that North Korea might exploit similar lawsuits as a means of earning foreign currency. 

In May 2012, South Korea implemented the Act on Special Cases concerning Family Relationship, Inheritance, etc. between Residents in South and North Korea. 

Under the law, North Korean residents may bring an action for recovery of inheritance in South Korea in accordance with Article 999 of South Korea’s Civil Act. 

If a man was married in North Korea before the Korean War armistice agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, and if he came to South Korea and married another woman, he cannot apply for revocation of the first marriage on the ground of bigamy. Therefore, his first wife in North Korea also has the right to inherit his property. In the same context, children in North Korea have the right to inherit the property of their parents in South Korea. They can make a claim for recovery of inheritance. Once they acquire the right to any property in South Korea by inheritance, they may file a petition with the competent court to designate an administrator in charge of the management of their property in the South. 

Even before the unification of Korea, inheritance between people in South and North Korea has already become a realistic issue. If and when inter-Korean exchanges reinvigorate, there will be more disputes over family relationships and inheritance between the people across the border. It seems necessary to prepare for a more detailed and systematic law concerning their inherited property and management. 

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