Korean Constitutional Court Rules Limits on Chinese Characters Permitted in Names are Constitutional


The Korean Constitutional Court ruled 6-3 that the limits on Chinese characters permitted in personal names (人名用漢字, 인명용 한자) are constitutional. These restrictions were first introduced in 1990, as family records maintained by the government were being digitized. The original list only included 2,731 characters. Over the years, the Court has gradually increased the number of permissible characters to 8,142 characters as of last year. Korean Family Law specifies that only Hangul and “commonly used” Chinese characters are permitted in personal names and that the Constitutional Court is to define which characters are allowable.

The restrictions on Chinese characters allowed in personal names was very controversial when first introduced and has been challenged a number of times ever since. In the most recent case, the challenger attempted to use the character 嫪(로) (“to long for”) to name their child. Since the character was outside the list of permitted characters, they were only allowed to record the name in Hangul. The family sued and argued that the restrictions on characters are unconstitutional, because they are a restraint on the freedom to name one’s child and their right to pursuit of happiness.

The majority of the Court, however, disagreed and concluded that the restrictions are constitutional. They noted that the number of people who do not know Chinese characters has increased, and that using rare characters will lead to errors in keeping digital records and recognizing people’s names, causing inconvenience for people with complicated names. The majority added that restrictions on Chinese characters permitted in personal names are “unavoidable” due to technological constraints. The minority countered, pointing out that any such constraints in digitizing records that might have been true in 1990 are no longer existent.

Currently, if any part of a name is not one of the Chinese characters on the list, then it is considered a “pure Hangul” name. Korean identification cards in such instances will only give the Hangul transcriptions, not Hanja and Hangul mixed. As such, although the percentage of Koreans with “pure Hangul” names has been reportedly increasing, this figure might be inflated. A subset of such names are intended to be combinations of “pure Korean” and Chinese characters. Earlier this year, a couple tried registering their daughter’s name as “贇별(윤별).” Even though 贇 is on the list of permissible characters, the couple was forced to register only in Hangul, because it was a mix of Hangul and Hanja. Another subset are cases like the one above, in which at least one character in the name is not on the list of permitted characters. The vast majority of Korean names are still entirely in Hanja.

(On a related note, I would like to also point out that “pure Korean” names in use now, while sometimes haughtily presented as “traditional,” are not anything like actual, historically used “pure Korean” names.)


  1. (Now not-so) New Reader said:

    Well this is troubling. I hope it is but an isolated event and not a portent of further shots Korean society fires at its own feet..

    Also, on the “pure” native Korean words versus Sino-Korean vocabulary…how much, would you wager, is the percentage of words of Sino-Korean origin that do have a corresponding native word (think of it like the japanese kanji and their Kun’yomi and On’yomi readings, one native, one Sino-Japanese); and how do you know when and where to use each, and what happens when a native word is used instead of a Sino-Korean one in a sentence that does not normally use it?

    For instance, I know 天 is read as “cheon” in its sinitic form but as “haneul” in its native one, therefore, what would happen if 天道教 (Cheondogyo) where to be read in its purely native form (Haneul-something, my Korean has reached its maximum exctent). Would it be understood if the readings where switched from Sinitic to Native?
    And finally are there examples, as in Japanese of mixed readings?

    Apologies for my long questionnaire, and kind regards.

    Yours faithfully
    The now not so new Reader

    • 歸源 said:

      I do not find this troubling. Japan has had limits on characters allowed in personal names since 1951, and currently the list is at 2,998 characters, less than half of the Korean one. China theoretically has no limits, although practically limited by Unicode. Limits are unavoidable. There are 40,000+ characters, the vast majority of which were only used once or twice in history.

      Approximately 25% of Korean vocabulary is “pure.” Some of these are actually corrupted pronunciations of Sino-Korean words (e.g., 沈菜 -> Kimchi). Korean used to have kunyomi/onyomi distinction, but this faded away a long time ago, some during the Goryeo dynasty period. Today, all characters are read by their Sino-Korean pronunciation. (天道教 would be pronounced just 천도교.) There are mixed words, where one stem is “pure” and the other is Sino-Korean (e.g., 애초 -> 애初).

      • (Now not-so) New Reader said:

        Oh, I saw it as a danger due to my liberal (in the correct politological use of the word, NOT the american one, do note) views of life, in the sense of: Why would a family that wishes to name their child with the character for a deep longing ( lào, 嫪 the one you have mentioned ) be barred from doing so? There is no harm in said selection of a character; the whole Hanja list is naught but a measure to police people in an -I reckon- quite unnecesary field; if the barriers to characters ought to exist, then they should be constrained to unseemly characters such as rape, feces, and what-have-you, as is the case in some other Character-using nations.

        But alas, I am but a person sharing their thoughts on the internet, and the whole debate is way above our payrolls in the end.

        Do have a nice day, sir.

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