15 August 2008

The Old Korean Family Laws

In my last post, I mentioned my genealogy, and my need to obtain vital records when I arrive in Seoul next month in order to close the records out. In doing my research, I learned a great deal about both the old Confucian family laws of South Korea, as well as the current replacement law, along with the record format and contents going along with them. The main source of my research, in fact, was a certified copy of the old Confucian family census register, which my father had obtained in 1987 to apply for US immigration visa, and professionally had translated into English in 1994 to apply for US citizenship. It is a treasure trove of information - not only about my parents' background, but also about the primitive Confucian family laws it was based on. The Confucian family census register was used until January 1, 2008, at which point a new, more modern electronic register replaced it in compliance with the new laws. I want to discuss the contents of this archaic document while I still have it, for a look into the Confucian family system and values.

(For my paperwork filing purposes, this census register is useless, even though it's a certified copy, because the law requires me to use a certified copy no more than six months old. That's why I must get the records all over again - or if I am not traveling to Seoul, ask a relative in Seoul to do it for me.)

The first piece of information is the "permanent address" - namely, the first address at which my father registered as a head of household. This permanent address determines which district office would keep the hard copy of the register (which used to be rolls and rolls of paper) and issue certified copies, and could not be changed even if the registrant subsequently moved. For my father, the permanent address was in downtown Seoul, which was long history even before I was born.

In keeping with Confucian principles, the register's basic unit is the family, defined as a married couple with their unmarried children. The husband/father is the "head of household" and is always listed first, followed by the wife/mother and the biological children in birth order. With rare exceptions, only married men could be a head of household, a status with special legal rights; married women depended on their husbands for many legal rights, and unmarried people, even adults, needed their fathers. This system was way too simplistic in that it assumed everyone would enjoy a happy heterosexual marriage and raise their own biological kids, who would in turn eventually enter their own heterosexual marriages and raise their own biological kids; it ignored the reality of the diversity of family structures even in the Korean society, including children being raised by single parents, stepparents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and more.

My father's individual section is quite detailed, showing his name in Chinese characters (including strain, which I discussed in my last post), the 13-digit National ID number, his parents' names, his parents' permanent address in Busan, and how he became the head of his own household (in his case, as usual, marriage). It also shows his birthplace and birthdate. My mother's individual section follows (and her parents were also Busan-based), but her information lacks birthplace information. Once I file the nationality renunciation paperwork, information on loss of nationality would also be added.

I and other children in the family are listed only by given names, as assuming my father's surname and strain was an automatic requirement. Again, National ID numbers follow, as well as my birthplace (listed as National Medical Center in downtown Seoul) and birthdate information, as well as who reported my birth (my father reported it 11 days afterwards). But little more than that. If I got married, a notation would be added to this record, and I would get a new, separate record. If I subsequently got divorced, another notation would be added, and I would again defer to my father as my head of household. If I changed my legal name or gender (the latter impossible until 2001), again, notation time. Gender change also requires a new National ID number, as its seventh digit is 1 for males and 2 for females.

Given that the basic unit of records was not the individual, but the family, getting my vital records would require getting the vital records of everyone in my household (and conversely, my records would be included whenever someone ran a background check on a family member). And this could be problematic. Any "questionable" activity that I incur - such as a divorce or a gender change - results in a notation that anyone who sees my family members' vital records can see. This often would end up working against all my family members when it was time to apply for jobs and such. The worst part was that anyone with my permanent address and name could run my records - even total strangers.

Which is why a new law and a new recordkeeping system are in effect today. And only immediate family members can run the records; others require permission of the record holder. And most importantly, the basic unit is the individual now, for even better protection of family "secrets." Pulling my father's record will no longer reveal adverse information about *me*. Concepts such as "permanent address" and "head of household" no longer exist.

Last, but not the least, most of the record is written in Chinese characters and numerals. Only postpositions and other descriptive languages not readily written in Chinese are written in Korean, and the National ID number is in Roman numerals. The Chinese numerals are a devil for me to read, because the normally simpler numerals, like 1, 2, 3, or 10, were written in complex legalese characters with many strokes, to prevent tampering. I really needed the help of the English translation to read and understand the document.

Again, what I just explained has been replaced by a newer system, and South Korean government websites already revealed to me what I can expect to see in my new reports. But I won't discuss them until I am in Seoul and in actual possession of the reports.