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Changing Lifestyles : S. Koreans Shake Family-Tree Rules : * Thinking about getting married? In Seoul, you may be out of luck if you two had a common ancestor, say, 600 years ago.

March 17, 1992|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — Businessman Kim Eui Kyong and his one-time student, Kim Kyoung Sun, made one basic mistake.

They fell in love before checking their family tree.

Sure they had the same surname--but Kim in Korea is like Smith in the United States, only more so. More than one in five South Koreans are Kims. It turned out that Eui Kyong and Kyoung Sun shared a paternal ancestor who lived about the time that the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was writing his Canterbury Tales, back in the 14th Century. Their common blood amounted to one drop in 14 million or so.

No matter. In South Korea, it is too much.

For here, uniquely, two people with a common ancestor anywhere in their paternal lineage--no matter how far back--are forbidden by both law and custom to marry. China, where the idea of banning intra-clan marriages originated, abandoned the practice at the turn of the century. Communist North Korea abolished a law similar to the south's in the late 1940s, although Koreans there reportedly still frown on clan marriages.

But that was little consolation to the Kims, who risked official sanctions, financial penalties and social ostracism to marry illegally.

"What have two persons in love like us done to disturb society?" the businessman asked rhetorically. "Who could we hurt? Why should a law cause such agony to those who haven't hurt anyone?"

The Kims' story illustrates a continuing struggle here between still-powerful Confucian ideas about the sanctity of the clan and the realities of modern South Korean life. (The issue is sensitive enough that the couple's given names have been changed in this article at their request.)

The standing of the clan is an offshoot of the Confucian emphasis on the family as more important than the individual, and on the senior male member as the head of the family. It is common for Koreans to keep multi-volume registers tracing their ancestry back hundreds of years. The major clans--more than half of South Koreans are named Kim, Lee, Park, or Choi--maintain offices and staffs that compile records, build monuments to major clan ancestors and maintain their graves.

Article 809 of South Korea's Family Law bars marriage between any man and woman "with the same family name and the same place of origin"--members, in other words, of the same clan, believed to share a male ancestor. Article 815 bars marriage through four generations if there is a common ancestor in the maternal lineage of one or both of the partners.

Marriages that run afoul of either of those articles cannot be registered, and are therefore not legal. In practical terms, that means that husbands can't claim a tax exemption for their wives, and any children of the union are technically illegitimate.

Parents sometimes disinherit children who marry within the clan, and other social pressures exist. Kim said he fears that a rival at work in one of South Korea's mid-sized conglomerates might use his marriage to discredit him.

The social pressures are so widespread here that some intra-clan couples separate rather than face them. Suicides, too, have occurred.

Confucian scholars, who insist that the tradition and the law exist to prevent defective births from a union of close relatives, liken intra-clan marriages to "the behavior of dogs and alley cats." But that argument clearly is a sophistry to preserve reverence of paternal lineage.

Respect for elders here is such that middle-aged men will abstain from drinking and smoking in the presence of their seniors. "You must understand Korean society," said Kim. "If you have one grandfather opposed to a decision that 30 offspring support, the grandfather's decision will prevail."

Nonetheless, it is becoming clear that the tradition Kim and his wife defied is breaking down as part of subtle changes in the rigid Korean family structure.

An estimated 300,000 young couples in this nation of 43 million have followed the Kims' example and defied the old intra-clan marriage ban, according to the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations. Sympathy for their dilemma has grown so great that twice in the last 14 years, the National Assembly enacted one-year suspensions of the ban on registering intra-clan marriages. During a 1978 suspension, 4,577 such couples registered their marriages. In a 1988 suspension, 12,443 couples--including the Kims--won legality. Neither suspension was widely publicized.

Dr. Lee Tai Young, South Korea's first female attorney, who has led a 37-year struggle for women's rights, predicts that abolition of the ban--which is seen along with other objections as prejudicial to women--is "only a matter of time."

"To say a father's blood counts and the mother's blood doesn't" is hard for educated Koreans to accept, said Sonia Reid Strawn, a Methodist missionary who assists the legal aid center. "Koreans who want their nation to be seen as a modern country are embarrassed by this strange, medieval law."

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