A 70-something elderly Korean man residing in Los Angeles, who only wished to be identified by his last name Lee, recently transferred some money to his friend in South Korea from Wilshire Bank last month. The payment was to compensate for his friend’s expenses to host their high school teacher’s 90th birthday party.
Lee’s friend, who the payment was made out to, is an ordinary working class man who is running his own small business back home.
Days after the money was sent, Lee received a call from his bank that the transfer had been blocked for security reasons. Wells Fargo, the financial institution responsible for overseeing Wilshire Bank’s international transactions, had stalled the transfer as the recipient had the same name as a North Korean government official.
Lee then had to return to his bank to fill out a form to verify the recipient’s date of birth, address and other personal information to complete the transaction, per U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control policy.
All of this was because Lee’s friend shared the same name as a high official in the North Korean government, who had essentially been blacklisted in the Specially Designated Nationals compiled by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
While such a story may sound like a rare coincidence, it is also true that many Koreans share the same first and last names, which makes the likelihood of Lee’s experience becoming a regular occurrence for others higher than one may imagine.
“It should be common sense that a North Korean government official can’t open a bank account in South Korea,” said Lee, who was clearly frustrated.
Lee’s complaint is an understandable one from a Korean perspective, as more than half of ethnic Koreans share the last names Kim, Lee or Park, in comparison to their neighbors Chinese and Japanese, who have hundreds of thousands of family names.
The commonality of Korean last names stem from the country’s late Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), during which only a few royals and aristocrats were given the privilege of having their own last names, which were primarily Kim, Lee or Park. When Korea’s class-based social system was abolished, many commoners simply adopted the existing last names.
Thus, more than a few Koreans in the U.S. who wished to transfer money to their home country in the past have run into similar problems as Lee. The delay could be quite frustrating as international transfer at most banks require a relatively lengthy period to be completed in the first place.
“The bank could be penalized for violating the policy set forth by the Department of the Treasury,” said one banker in Koreatown. “The delays that occur at times with
By Sang Woo Park