Seeking to Better Women's Status

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Seeking to Better Women's Status

Civic Group Trying to Change Law That Defines Head of Household

The human rights activist Seo Joon-sik once publically said that Korean laws "restrict" society rather than regulate it. Seo was a law student at the time, and eventually left his discipline to pursue cultural activism.

Many Koreans share such political pessimism, and not surprisingly those who try to promote change are usually marginalized groups in the society. Such is the case with the local civic organization Hopemo, a group of citizens who work to end the provisions in the civil law that give men priority as head of the household.

According to the Korean Family Act, the word family refers to the family head, or hoju, and the rest of his immediate family. A woman whose legal family changes, depending on her marital status, literally has to "dig" her family registration from her father when she marries, and "bury" it to her husband's family. From then on, the woman becomes a legal member of the husband's family.

Things get complicated if the couple gets divorced or one of them dies, and even more complicated if they have a child when one of these two things occurs. If a divorced woman with a child remarries, her new husband adopts the child with permission from the child's biological father. In other words, Korean law does not allow for a woman to be the legal parent of a household.

The succession of the title head of the household is also contradictory. When the hoju dies, the title goes to the eldest son. If the couple does not have a son, the title goes to the daughter instead of the mother since she is not linked to the husband by blood and therefore not as close to the husband as the daughter. However if this daughter marries, she loses her status as head of her deceased father's household, since she is bound by marriage into her husband's family and no longer considered part of her father's family. In this case, priority then goes to deceased hoju's mother. Essentially, maternal lineage is not valid in a Korean family.

So far, 78 cases have been registered with Hopemo that are part of a class-action lawsuit to overturn the law as mandated by the Family Headship Act. Mostly, the cases involve single mothers wanting to obtain guardianship of their children under their last name. Under no circumstances does Korean law allow anyone to choose their own last name.

Until this law is reformed, which the group suspects will take another year or two, Hopemo encourages people to use both of their parents' last names.

They also hope to end the clan regulation system, simply because they feel the ancestral ritual has been performed to maintain the paternal lineage.

Consisting mainly of students, housewives and volunteer lawyers, Hopemo is also advocating change through its homepage (, and holds regular petition signings in Daehakro every third Sunday. The group has approximately 11,000 names on the petition to abolish the Family Headship Act.

The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition recently interviewed an advising committee member, Lee Yun Myung-ho.

IHT-JAI: How did the group first come together?

LEE YUN: Hopemo began three years ago as a small study group. Back then, people thought the term hoju referred to political activists from Australia (Australia in Korean is translated as hoju). Then we built a website and slowly started making public appearances. There are volunteers who work both on-line and off-line. The group also has an advising committee.

IHT-JAI: How did you get invloved?

LEE YUN: I joined the group and became a committee memeber because I have encountered some very frustrating moments in my profession as a doctor of Asian medicine.

I have seen a substantial number of patients who mistakenly come to me for medical treatments which they think will allow them to give birth to a son. People are too preoccupied with having sons, because without a son the family becomes what's referred to as a ghost home when the father passes away. Until I became a doctor I wasn't aware of the situation, simply because my parents didn't raise me to think that males were superior to female offspring.

Female doctors practicing Asian medicine have also formed a small group which refuses to give treatment to people who want to bear a son, much in the same way that hospitals cannot give gender selection.

IHT-JAI: Is it really possible to give such treatment?

LEE YUN: There is a treatment in ancient medicine to control genes.

IHT-JAI: Some people claim that your group violates Korean tradition. For example, the part about discarding ancestral worship - righ-wing political groups attacked Hopemo after that announcement in public?

LEE YUN: What is tradition anyway? Define tradition for me. Democracy isn't Korean tradition either. We can't force tradition just for the its own sake. Besides, the law regarding the family headship is clearly not Korean tradition either. This was made by the Japanese during the colonial era to keep a complete record of what goes on in Korean families. They did it because it made it easier to take control and say the Koreans are under the rule of the Japanese emperor. Even the Japanese abolished that system in 1974.

IHT-JAI: How was the Korean family registration system done before?

LEE YUN: It was based on the members who lived in the same household, the servants included. There wasn't a clear hierarchy between the sexes like the one we have now. There is even a convincing indication that the groom came to the bride's house to be wed. In some cases bridegrooms lived in the bride's house. Of course, there was jokbo, the document which traces the paternal lineage, but that was separate from the legal system. It was definitely more community-based.

IHT-JAI: It appears that when a divorced woman with a child marries, there seems to be quite a complication.

LEE YUN: True, because the Korean Constitution does not allow the child to follow the mother's last name, even if the father is dead or vanished. So when she marries, her husband has to adopt the child, only with permission from the child's biological father. However, there has not been a single case so far where the child's biological father gave up his parental rights. Basically a definition of mother in Korea is someone who contributes her womb to her husband's family.

IHT-JAI: What is the reaction from the National Assembly?

LEE YUN: (laughs) We've turned in the proposals. However they won't do much unless public opinion on this matter expands and starts putting pressure on their back. They won't do much more than give the final word.

IHT-JAI: What some other alternatives for change?

LEE YUN: Korean intellectuals are way too silent. They better start taking actions. Silence means they support the current system. They should come out of the closet. We also need the media's help. The government has all the rights and responsibilities to let citizens know what is going on. Family Headship is simply a violation of the Human Rights Act settled by the United Nations.

by Park soo-mee

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)