North Korea forcing citizens to change their names to sound more ideological

Names meaning “loyalty” or “bomb” are encouraged instead of “loved one” or “super beauty”
By Jieun Kim for RFA Korean
2022.11.30
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North Korea forcing citizens to change their names to sound more ideological Children leave after paying their respects in front of bronze statues of the late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Munsu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea, July 7, 2018. In the 2000s, North Koreans began to name their children differently as they learned about the outside world little by little, a resident of North Korea told RFA.
Pool via Reuters

In the past, North Koreans were encouraged to give their children patriotic names that held some ideological or even militaristic meaning, such as Chung Sim (loyalty), Chong Il (gun), Pok Il (bomb) or Ui Song (satellite).

In recent years, though, as the county has become more open to the outside world, North Koreans have been naming their children gentler, more uplifting names that are easier to say, such as A Ri (loved one), So Ra (conch shell) and Su Mi (super beauty), sources inside the country say. 

Instead of names that end on harder sounding consonants, children are being given names that end in softer vowels, which is more like names given to children in South Korea.

But recently, North Korean authorities are clamping down on this trend, requiring citizens with the softer names to change to more ideological ones, and even their children’s names, if they aren’t “revolutionary” enough, the sources say.

“Residents are complaining that the authorities are forcing people to change their names according to the standards required by the state,” a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal.

“Starting last month, notices have been constantly issued at the neighborhood-watch unit’s residents' meeting to correct all names without final consonants. People with names that don’t have a final consonant have until the end of the year to add political meanings to their name to meet revolutionary standards,” he said.

“Anti-socialist”

In meetings and public notices, officials have gone so far as to instruct adults and children to change their names if they are deemed too soft or simple, and that names without final consonants are “anti-socialist,” another source said.

Many parents are “showing strong reluctance,” the source said, privately asking if the authorities will force them to name their children “to reflect the current era of starvation and oppression.” 

The government has threatened to fine anyone who does not use names with political meanings, a resident in the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely. 

“The order of the judicial authority to immediately change anti-socialist names has been emphasized at every residents' meeting since October,” he said, adding that it is not known if the government will actually issue fines or how much they could be. 

The names must not reflect trends in South Korea, which North Korea says is “a copy of the decadent Western Yankee culture,” according to the second source.

“Authorities criticized multiple generations of families for not hesitating to name their children with a mixture of Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean names rather than North Korean ones,” he said.

In private, residents sarcastically ask if they should take old-fashioned names like Yong Chol, Man Bok or Sun Hui, the second source said. For English speakers, these might sound roughly as old-fashioned as names such as Gladys, Mildred, or Eustace.

“They say, ‘if being naked and starving is true socialism, we are absolutely against it,’” the second source said. 

Many people are expressing strong disapproval “of the tyranny of the authorities who force collectivism, saying, ‘How can humans not be allowed to name themselves? Are we actually mechanical parts or livestock?’”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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