December 16, 2022
SEOUL – When Vittoria Oliveira de Souza Ventura came to South Korea from her native country of Brazil five years ago, she didn’t expect her name to cause trouble.
“My full name is more than 25 characters long (in the English alphabet) and I was denied access to many services because name registration was not possible,” Ventura told The Korea Herald. When written in Hangeul — the Korean alphabet — her full name is 16 characters long, compared to most Korean names’ three.
“I’ve had problems with banks, mobile phone operators, membership point programs, vaccine registrations and online banking apps,” said the 25-year-old student at Sogang University in Seoul.
A vicious cycle started when she tried to open a bank account at a local bank, the first step for foreigners to settle down after moving here. Officials at KB Kookmin Bank, one of the top commercial banks here, told her that its system won’t show her name in full and suggested that she use an abbreviated name – Vittoria Venture.
The decision to go by Vittoria Venture, however, caused problems with identity verification processes when she tried to sign up for a mobile phone and other services, she explained.
After two roundtrips to the bank and multiple hours of talking, she managed to change the name on her bank account to its “complete form,” although it won’t be shown in full on the system.
But the move, which seemed right at the time, led to yet another problem.
“Then the mobile service carrier said they could not register my full name because it’s too long,” she said.
“How can I accept that my name’s length is the reason I can’t access a service?”
Long names not welcome
A majority of Korean names consist of three characters – one for the family name and two for the given name. This uniformity of three-character names are deeply entrenched in Korean systems, in both public and private realms. The country even has a law that disallows citizens from registering names with more than five characters.
Paulo Andre Nobrega Marinho, who works as chief of scientific strategy at a local company here, had his own share of name troubles. His name is 24 letters long in English and 13 characters when written in Hangeul.
“A Korean airline (apparently got my name wrong in the first place) and tried to convince me on the phone that I was not Paulo Andre Nobrega Marinho,” the 39-year-old Brazilian said via e-mail.
“That is a funny souvenir nowadays. But it took one whole month, lots of calls and e-mails, even legal threats, to make sure I was able to access my mileage points.”
Nobrega Marinho, who has lived in Korea since 2017, also spoke of being trapped in the vicious cycle after an institution put in his name wrong in the system because it was “too long.”
“I was trying to buy a mobile phone and had to submit some documents in order to purchase it, including a bank account,” he said.
“Woori Bank could not put my whole name in their data system — apparently the limit is 20 characters, which led to them to shorten and write my name backwards: Nobrega Marinho Paul, or even worse Paul Nobrega Marinho. That caused problems.”
Julia Magdalena Zientara, a 22-year-old university student from Poland, said she went through a similar experience as the two Brazilians, inconveniences that people in her home country would not have to go through.
“That situation would not have happened in my country because we do not have this system of a maximum number of letters or syllables for personal names in systems,” she said.
In August, the state-run National Human Rights Commission of Korea called a local lender’s decision to refuse service to a foreign customer over the person’s “long name” as “an indirect act of discrimination.”
The foreigner filed the petition with the watchdog in July after he was denied a personal account which he wanted to use for business transactions.
While requiring both the names of the would-be account holder and the business, the bank capped English characters in account names at a total of 20, citing system requirements. The customer’s English name was 17 characters long and the business’ name was seven characters, which made a total of 24 characters.
In its defense, the bank stated that the same policy applies to Korean customers and that it was not an issue of racism. For banks to accommodate customers with such long names, they need to modify their entire system, which could lead to “unexpected errors,” the bank added. The bank also indicated that it will not change its policy.
In its ruling, the commission said the case is an example of “indirect discrimination” where a neutral policy works as a disadvantage for a certain group or an individual.
“By law, Koreans born in South Korea are banned from having more than five (Korean) letters in their name. So the bank’s systematic policy creates a clear disadvantage for foreigners, making the case an indirect act of discrimination,” the body stated.
Despite acknowledging the bank’s practice as a form of discrimination, the NHRCK has no legal or enforcement powers to correct it.
“What we can do is to ‘recommend’ institutions accused of discrimination to change the rules,” a NHRCK spokesperson told The Korea Herald on condition of anonymity.