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2008/03/02 08:00 KST
(Yonhap Feature) Mothers flood courts to change children's names

   By Kim Hyun
SEOUL, March 2 (Yonhap) -- The road was icy after heavy snow and her body was heavy, but Bae Mi-ran, 36, felt a sense of relief as she drove to the Seoul Family Court. After some paperwork, her daughter will get a new name and there will be no more whispering about her birth.

   "Her school friends ask her, 'Why is your family name different from your sister's? Why are you Bae, not Park?'" Bae said.

   "My third child is coming, and a new semester will start soon. I thought I should hurry," she said, with her due date two weeks away.

   Bae was one of thousands of South Korean mothers filing applications to change their children's family names, after the government abolished the patriarchal family registry system. The old system, called "hojuje" (meaning a system based on the head of a family), identified an individual through his or her blood line and banned them from changing their family names given by their birth parents. Children from former marriages were conspicuous in their new family records.

   In a society where the submission of family records is a ubiquitous obligation necessary for entering a school or getting a job, having a different family name from one's father or siblings reveals the disgrace of being from a broken family.

   Bae gave her own family name to her daughter, Min-gyeong, after her husband left them three months after her daughter's birth. When Min-gyeong became 3, Bae met her current husband, who had a 6-year-old daughter from his first marriage. For the children's sake, Bae and her husband lied to their two daughters, saying that they had separated after they were born and were now reuniting. The first child had no problem because she had the same family name as her father, but whispering started about Min-gyeong, now 10, after she went to school.

   "They go to the same school, and teachers would notice. I wouldn't care if our society didn't care, but it does," she said.

   "Being different on a document could mean nothing, but when I look at it I am reminded that our first child is not my child. I'm afraid my husband may have the same feeling," she said.

   After the new Family Relationship Registry took effect on January 1st, applications for name changes flooded family courts across the country. About 6,000 applications were filed nationwide. The Seoul Family Court received 1,190 applications.

   "January was the peak, as if everybody was waiting for it," Kwon Sung-yeap, an official who takes the applications at the Seoul court, said.

   "There was a long waiting line here. Sometimes so many people came that I had bronchial pain and couldn't speak," he said.

   While the majority of applicants are those who want to rename their children after their new fathers, some come to reverse it, he said.

   Choi Jin-sil, the star actress whose marriage to pro baseball player Cho Sung-min ended in divorce in 2004, recently applied for a change of family name for her two children. With Cho having given up his parental rights, Choi wanted to rename the children using her name.

   Because of the influx of applications, the court needs at least two months to deliberate on each case, said Hong Chang-woo, the publicity judge at the Seoul Family Court. The court has so far approved 169 cases and dismissed one, with about 1,000 cases on the waiting list. Even though the new system is generally considered a goodwill measure, the court has to be prudent in setting legal precedents, he said.

   Some come to the court out of an emotional impulse. A 23-year-old woman asked the court to change her family name to her mother's, saying her father, who had abandoned his parental rights, is now asking for her financial support. Her case that sought to use the new system to sever her relationship with her father was dismissed by the Seoul Family Court.

   The court considers whether the child has developed a bond of attachment to the new father and how long the new marriage has been stable. It is not mandatory for the birth father to give his consent to change the child's name, Hong said.