Korea's Revised Civil Code Concerning Family System

The parliament's decision Wednesday (2004) to abolish the male-oriented family registration system was an inevitable (if belated) response to the change in the times. The time-honored "hojuje," which allows only men to head families, has little place in this era of gender equality. Still, efforts will be needed to minimize difficulties accompanying changes in old practices.

The revised Civil Law is a triumph of individual dignity and equality, as the Constitutional Court indicated in a ruling last month. It is ridiculous that a boy without a father should become the head of his family before his mother or grandmother. A child will now also be able to adopt his or her mother's surname, or that of the stepfather in case of remarriage. This represents a step forward for human rights.

Statistics show families composed of two parents and children now only account for 51.2 percent of the total. The sharp increase in divorce and remarriage is itself due in part to a traditional male-oriented mentality, which fails to recognize a woman's role as breadwinner. Children of single-parent families should not have to suffer from social prejudices. Allowing children to adopt the surnames of stepfathers will also help ease Koreans' narrow-minded adherence to blood ties.

Those opposed to the move claim the new registry system could loosen traditional family ties, and perhaps hasten the end of the family unit. But these arguments, raised by elderly conservatives, are not persuasive. Korea's traditional family system may have many merits, but it also needs to adapt to fit modern society. The realities faced by members of society far outweigh old values.

Actually, the "hojuje," introduced in 1898, was modeled on Japanese civil law, but Japan itself abolished the system in 1948 due to concerns over gender equality. Even the U.N. Human Commission recommended the abolition of the "hojuje" in 1999, so politicians should be criticized for their belated move. Strong family ties will not disappear in a single day just with a change in the law.

We need to devise a better family registration system that guarantees equality and privacy for all.

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