Family names cause problems for multicultural children in South Korea
Calls growing for revision of rules on naming system
By Choi Ha-young
Go Hyeon-jeong, a 31-year-old office worker, had a daughter with her Taiwanese husband in 2013. Her husband’s last name is pronounced “Keo” in Taiwan and “Ga” in Korea. Since the former sounds awkward in Korea she wanted to use “Ga” for her two-year-old daughter’s surname.
However, it didn’t go well. When the couple registered their marriage, government officials said they must use “Keo.” Therefore, their daughter was supposed to use the foreign surname. Since it didn’t match with her Korean name, the girl is now using her Taiwanese-style full name which is rare here.
“Due to the foreign name, I always have to explain my husband’s ethnicity whenever I go to the hospital with my daughter,” Go told The Korea Times. “Even if my husband is foreign, my daughter has Korean citizenship. It’s unfair because multiracial children between Korean fathers and foreign mothers can use Korean-style surnames.”
“While Korean society is getting more multicultural, the system is not keeping up with this trend. It’s very regretful as a mother, if my daughter has difficulties in adjusting to this society and can’t have a Korean identity.”
Other than Go’s daughter, many multiracial children living in Korea with fathers from countries using Chinese characters ― China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore are stressed over their “awkward” surnames. These countries’ shared naming system originates from ancient China and each country has its own pronunciation of Chinese characters.
Go has gathered examples from those families to reform the regulations on family registration.
“My husband has the surname Peng in Korean-style Chinese pronunciation,” said another mother Lee Mi-hyung who joined the move. “However, my son had to use the Chinese native pronunciation Pong instead. All of my family members laughed at my baby’s weird surname.”
Cho Mi-ri, 41, has two children with her husband from China. His surname is “Heo” in Korean-style Chinese, but it’s pronounced “Shi” in Chinese, which means “urine” in Korean. Inevitably, she chose to use her surname Cho instead.
“Whenever my kids participate in an event or register for kindergarten or school, people ask me: Don’t you have husband? Are you a single mother?” Cho said. In Korea, where the influence of Confucianism prevails, using the mother’s surname is legally allowed but not so common.
To solve the problem, Go submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Government Legislation. However, her idea was rejected.
According to Rep. Jung Choun-sook of the Democratic Party of Korea, who is tackling this issue, the ministry delivered the proposal to the Office of Court Administration (OCA) under the Supreme Court which is in charge of the regulation.
Asked about the progress of this petition, a spokesman from the OCA shifted the responsibility to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. “This is outside our purview. For a fundamental solution, the culture ministry should revise loanword orthography,” spokesman Cho Byeong-ku said.
In response to the comment, the culture ministry said the office is able to make changes to the regulation without the revision of the loanword orthography. “For example, ethnic Koreans living in China are allowed to use Korean-style surnames even if they are Chinese nationals,” ministry spokesman Hwang Seong-woon said.
“The current naming system doesn’t take care of the distinct characteristics of multiracial kids with fathers from Asian countries. Their foreign surnames could be stumbling blocks in settling down here. This is against the nation’s multicultural policies aiming to embrace the children,” said Rep. Jung, a member of the National Assembly Gender Equality and Family Committee.
“The Supreme Court and culture ministry should cooperate in solving the problem rather than shifting responsibility to each other.”