South Korea Ends a Taboo, Strikes Blow for True Love

Court rules couples with same family names can now get married

Everything was ready. Reservations had been made, invitations sent out, and flowers ordered. But just before Lee Jae-yong's wedding, he discovered that his fiance, Lee Kyong-ok, was already family.

Both Lees are descendants of the Lee family from the city of Chonju. And in South Korea, "same-name/same-place" marriages have been considered incest for centuries. So while a church might have sanctioned their marriage, neither the government nor conservative Korean society would.

Nevertheless, in the face of discrimination, the Lees went ahead "because of love," says Lee Jay-yong in an emotional voice.

That was four years ago. Today, the Lees and tens of thousands of other "same-name/same-place" couples are rejoicing. Last month, the Constitutional Court overturned the law enforcing the centuries-old taboo and stood up for individual rights in the face of traditional Confucian order.

In a country that shares just a handful of last names - Kim, Park, Lee, etc. - finding a spouse who has a different last name can be quite difficult. There are 2,379,000 Lees from Chonju, 3,767,000 Kims from Kimhae, and 2,704,000 Parks from Miryang, to just name a few.

The court's July 13 decision has allowed about 200,000 "nonregistered" couples to register their unsanctioned marriages and receive benefits, says Kwak Pae-hee, an advocate at Seoul-based Korea Legal Aid Center on Family Relations.

By anyone's measure, the court decision was a big leap. Activists who fought the law for 40 years say the revision brings Korea in line with the 20th century. Meanwhile, Confucian scholars say the country is headed toward immorality and chaos.

But social inertia gives the Confucians comfort. Lee Seung-kwan, head of the cultural traditions department at Sungkyunkwan, Korea's Confucian headquarters established in 1398, says he doubts things will change that fast.

Ninety percent of South Koreans follow some kind of Confucian tradition, and most families abhor breaking tradition. Today, young lovers are still forced apart on account of their names. "You can change the law, but you can't change people's minds," he says.

Park Ho-wan, a twentysomething American-educated law student, still keeps to traditional Korean ways.

Mr. Park introduced his brother to a woman last year. But just as the two were getting serious, he realized they shared surnames and insisted his brother split up.

He's against changing the law "for just a few people."

"There are so many other people you could get married to," he says. "Especially in Korea. Most people don't marry for love. They marry for business or political reasons anyway."

Mr. Lee, the Confucian scholar, puts the situation in a cultural context. In Korea, he says, social cohesion comes before individual freedom.

Kwon Young-mi agrees. The editor of the Confucian Times says that in the United States, "you get married for your [individual] happiness, but here you get married for everyone's happiness. In English you say 'my wife,' but in Korean we say 'our wife.' "

Couples were temporarily exempted from the law in 1978, '88, and '96. During these small victories, 60,000 couples registered their marriages, according to Kwak.

But trying to prod the National Assembly to permanently change the law was futile. Lawmakers are under too much pressure from constituents wanting to maintain traditions.

"When winning an election depends on a few thousand votes, you can't touch on such sensitive issues," she says.

So Kwak went over their heads. Two years ago, a team of 10 lawyers and three witnesses - a law professor, a genetics professor, and Kwak - filed a class-action suit in the Constitutional Court on behalf of eight couples.

The court finally overturned the law last month because it "restricts the right to seek happiness" and by only following paternal blood lines, denies equal treatment of women.

"I knew in my heart this was the right thing to do. We're a democratic society, and we should be free to marry who we want," says Lee Seung-chul, one of the eight couples.

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