The Supreme Court of South Korea has ruled for the first time that North Korean children of a South Korean citizen have the right to inherit their deceased parent's property, court officials said on Thursday.
The verdict set a legal precedent with far-reaching implications on the divided Korean Peninsula, as it opened the way for what could be a flood of similar lawsuits. Millions of Koreans were separated from their families across the border after the peninsula was divided at the end of World War II in 1945, with the 1950-53 Korean War sealing the border.
Many of those living in the South died without meeting their children, spouses or siblings in the North again or finding a way to bequeath their fortunes to those living in the impoverished North. There is no telephone, e-mail or letter exchange allowed between the two Koreas.
The decision this week involved a man identified only by his surname, Yoon. A native of North Korea, Mr. Yoon fled to South Korea during the war, traveling only with his eldest daughter but leaving his wife and five other children behind in the North. The wife died in the North in 1997.
When the war ended in a stalemate and with the peninsula still divided and no hope for him to reunite with his family, Mr. Yoon remarried in the South and had four children here. South Korea does not permit bigamy, but while it banned its citizens from contacting North Koreans during the cold war, it provided legal protection for a second marriage in the South.
A doctor by training, Mr. Yoon left 10 billion won, or $8.9 million, worth of property when he died in 1987.
As his South Korean children moved to inherit the properties, his North Korea-born daughter, now 78, filed a lawsuit in 2009, claiming that they should share the fortune with Mr. Yoon's children in the North.
She went to extraordinary lengths to win her case. She found a Korean-American who was willing to travel to the isolated North to find, with the help of the North Korean government, her siblings in the North and collect DNA evidence, including hair and fingernail samples, and she videotaped statements from them allowing her to represent them in a South Korean court of law.
In a 2011 lower-court ruing, which was formally upheld by the Supreme Court on Wednesday, the North Koreans were recognized as biological children of Mr. Yoon. The court also recognized the North Koreans' right to hire a South Korean lawyer and file a lawsuit in the South, as well as their rights to a portion of the inheritance from their father.
Despite the ruling, the North Korean children are unlikely to get their money anytime soon.
In anticipation of the cases like Mr. Yoon's, South Korea enacted a law last year stipulating that any inheritance money won by North Koreans be kept in the care of a court-appointed custodian and sent to the North only with government permission. With tensions high with the North after its Feb. 12 nuclear test, South Korea keeps tight restrictions on any cash transmissions to the North.
But legal experts say that if the North Koreans file another lawsuit claiming that this law violates their rights under the Constitution of South Korea, it can open a whole new legal battle over the ban on cash transmissions. The South Korean Constitution includes North Korea in the South Korean territory, essentially giving all North Koreans citizenship in South Korea.
"The court order raises more questions than it answers," the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo said in an editorial after the original 2011 ruling. "This could trigger chaos and an explosive increase in lawsuits."
Before Mr. Yoon's, there had been a couple of other cases in which North Korean children claimed a stake in their South Korean fathers' inheritances. They were settled out of court.
In 2005, the grandson of a dead North Korean novelist won a lawsuit against a South Korean publisher, which was accused of violating the novelist's copyrights. In 2011, an 86-year-old North Korean man helped his South Korean daughter win back his land held by a provincial government in the South after he learned that his wife in the South had never remarried after their separation during the war.
In 2011, a North Korean woman defected to South Korea to sue her step-grandmother for a share of an inheritance from her late grandfather. The grandfather met the North Korean woman, his only surviving kin in the North, for the first time in the 1990s, when the two Koreas promoted political reconciliation and allowed family reunions for limited numbers of people. He had since regularly sent her cash through brokers in China.
When the cash stopped coming after the man's death, the North Korean granddaughter defected to the South to claim her share.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.