Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week’s question is:
Do North Koreans change their name if they share it with a leader or public figure? Did people with a name like “Kim Jong Un” have to change their name in 2010 when Kim Jong Un became publicly known?
I think they would’ve had to.
Kim Jong Un came to light and rose to prominence after my defection. Hence, I can’t tell you with full confidence about whether everyone named Kim Jong Un had to change their name when he rose to power. However, what I can tell you is that people with the same names as national founder Kim Il Sung, his wife Kim Jong Suk and his son Kim Jong Il had to change their names. One interesting thing here is that you’re allowed to share the given name of the leader or other important public figures. What’s not allowed is for you to share the full name of the Dear Leader.
For example, when you look at the name “Kim Jong Il,” “Kim” is the surname and “Jong Il” is his given name. You can be “Park Jong Il” or “Lee Jong Il,” but your name shouldn’t be “Kim Jong Il.” Therefore, people who had same first and last name as the Dear Leader had to change their names after Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il rose to power. I never shared a full name with any one of our leaders or his direct family members. So, I never had to change my name against my will while I was growing up in North Korea. But I heard that the government changes your name immediately after the leader rises to power.
I think parents would name their children after former presidents or kings, hoping that they would grow up to possess their positive and admirable qualities
However, since the government began deifying the Kim family, parents have taken extra caution to avoid naming their children after the leaders, even if they had different last names. They would have been too afraid to spell out first names such as “Il Sung” or “Jong Il” on the birth certificates of their children. In the West, I think parents would name their children after former presidents or kings, hoping that they would grow up to possess their positive and admirable qualities. But in North Korea, you’re in deep trouble if you have the same name as the leader. Thus, parents wouldn’t dare to give even the first names of the leaders to their children.
One of my friends was named Kim Pyong Il – the exact same full name as one of the sons of Kim Il Sung, a half-brother of Kim Jong Il. As a result, local officials would talk about my friend – just because he shared the same name as Kim Il Sung’s son.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
And there are still a considerable number of people who have had to change their names for reasons other than sharing it with one of the leaders. These included people with names commonly found in Japan too. Such names include “Soon-ja” (“Junko” in Japanese), “Chun-ja” (“Haruko”), “Kyung-ja” (“Keiko”) or “Yang-ja” (“Yoko”). The North Korean government ordered that these people change their names just because they were commonly found in Japanese society. Even if they liked their names, they had no choice but to give them up under government order. A considerable number of people around me had these “Japanese-sounding” names and were all obligated to change their names, no exceptions allowed.
A considerable number of people around me had these ‘Japanese-sounding’ names and were all obligated to change their names, no exceptions allowed
South Koreans don’t seem bothered about such trivial, petty things, as the wife of former President Chun Doo-hwan kept the name, “Soon-ja” (“Junko” in Japanese, as you’ll recall) while in the position of First Lady. Imagine if you were an American named Michael during the Cold War; would the existence of Russians using with the name “Mikael” have bothered you?
You may wonder, then, whether you can freely change your name just because you don’t like the one you have. My answer is: No, it is not so easy to do. Of course, if you have enough money to bribe the officials, you could adopt a new name that you prefer. But if you can’t afford to do that, you’re stuck with the name you were given at birth.
As Hallyu (the Korean Wave of pop culture) flooded into North Korea via China, South Korean names became very popular among North Koreans. In North Korea, almost everyone had names that could be spelled out in Chinese characters. We liked to apply meaning to each syllable. But many South Koreans seemed to have pure Korean names, rather than from Chinese characters.
Ordinary North Koreans became fond of such pure Korean names commonly used among South Koreans. In fact, many babies born after 2000 in North Korea have South Korean-sounding names. I hope the government does not force them to change their names in the future. The North Korean regime has made so much effort to “purify” the Korean language, yet most North Koreans have names that can be spelled using Chinese characters. Isn’t it ironic?
I like that more and more babies born in the 2000s have pure Korean names that sound South Korean. I hope this change continues in that direction. I hope North Koreans are given freedom to choose names they like some day.
The above is the perspective of the author, and may not be representative of all North Korean defectors.
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Editing by Rob York and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
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