Here's yet another question for you about Korean names. At the end of last semester I was giving speaking tests to our middle school students, and was taking roll based on the name list given at the beginning of the year. However, several of my students had changed their names in those few months. Not changed their English names, I mean their parents changed their Korean names. Why do they do this? Why at such a late age? How common is it?
Name change in Korea is not particularly common, but it is hardly unheard of either. The number of name changes greatly increased after 2005, after the Supreme Court significantly relaxed the "good cause" required for a name change. As a result, until 2005, the court granted name change in around 80 percent of the cases. After 2005, the court granted name change in around 90 percent of the cases or higher. This leniency led to a greater number of Koreans wanting to change their names. In 2009, there were approximately 170,000 petitions for name change filed with the Supreme Court. (To contextualize the number, consider that Korea's population is approximately 50 million.) In contrast, there were only 46,000 petitions for name change in 2002.
Koreans legally change their names for all kinds of reasons, although most of the reasons are some variations of "I don't like the name." There are those who did not appreciate their parents' sense of humor and desired to change their name to avoid ridicule. Many simply thought their name was too old-fashioned or corny. Some wanted to change their names after a serial killer was revealed to have the same name as they.
There are also reasons that are somewhat specific to Korea. Many petitioners filed the paperwork as a matter of technicality: they did not want to change the names that they use every day, but add or change the Chinese characters in their Sino-Korean name. (To understand the Chinese characters involved in creating a Korean name, please refer to this post.) This is usually tied to seongmyeonghak [성명학], a traditional study of the relation between one's name and one's fortune. Like getting advice from a palm reader, Koreans would sometimes visit a place called jakmyeongso [작명소, "name-maker"], receive an assessment of their names, and change their names if they deem necessary.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.