Naming restrictions vex multicultural families

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Naming restrictions vex multicultural families

Jennifer Clister, 34, an American married to a Korean, named her son Kim Clister Seo-jun last year, giving him both her husband’s and her own surnames.

But the Korean government refused to allow Clister to register the name. She was told that a given name over five Hangul characters could not be officially accepted by the country.

As the number of multicultural families rises in Korea, laws restricting the use of longer given names are coming under increased scrutiny. A series of laws have placed limitations on acceptable names.

The Family Relationship Registration Act of 1991 passed by the National Assembly stipulates that the use of certain Chinese characters must be chosen from a list approved by the Supreme Court. The government also implemented the length limit on given names in 1993.

A 31-year-old man surnamed Kim who lives in Mapo District, central Seoul, said that he was forbidden to name his baby girl as his family wanted. The Chinese character chosen by the parents was not on the government’s list of Chinese characters “usable for a person’s name” established by the Supreme Court in 1991.

Kim’s family had to use another name for registration.

“The name meant a lot to us and I couldn’t understand why we had to change it because of legal regulations,” Kim said.

The Supreme Court stated that the legislation narrowing down the use of acceptable names was implemented for the sake of “social acceptance.”

“One’s name is the basis of his or her social life and thus requires a certain level of social acceptance,” the court said.

“So it is proper that the naming of a child should regard the child’s benefit and must be easily recognizable by others.”

The court and lawmakers also cited reasons related to the convenience of the government’s computerized registration system, according to a Supreme Court official.

However, parents like Kim, who want the freedom to name their children whatever they choose, view the law as an infringement on their rights.

Min Hyun-joo, a lawmaker of the ruling Saenuri Party, last week proposed a reform bill to eliminate the regulation of Chinese characters usable for a person’s name as stipulated in the Family Relationship Registration Act.

“The ‘usable’ characters on the list include characters inappropriate to be used in names like those meaning ‘death,’ ‘thief’ and ‘illness,’ so I don’t doubt the practicality of the list,” Min said.

“But the regulation on Chinese characters usable for a person’s name unnecessarily infringes on people’s rights and should be repealed.”

The Supreme Court has voiced its concern over the proposed reform bill.

“Using rare Chinese characters for children’s names may cause inconvenience in a child’s life,” a court official said.

It is currently possible to make an addition to the Chinese characters usable for a person’s name through civil appeal, the official added.

The number of Chinese characters on the list has been increased through a number of revisions. Some 5,700 are listed presently, augmented from 2,700 in 1991.

Limiting the number of characters (in Hangul, the number of letters for a word is the same as the number of syllables in the word) that can be registered for names is also under criticism.

Yun Jin-soo, professor of Seoul National University’s College of Law, said the current pressure to conform to traditional Korean names is not sustainable when looking at demographic trends on the peninsula.

“As multicultural families increase, insisting on the use of traditional Korean names will gradually become harder,” Yun said. “Deregulation of letter limits on names should be considered.”

By Lee Seung-ho [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

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