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Looking for a Mr. Kim in Seoul = Finding a Needle in a Haystack (The Story Behind Korean Last Names)



Do you have a Korean friend? Then the chances are pretty good that his/her last name is one of the following: Kim, Lee, Park, or Choi. Well if not, your friend is a rarity (a keeper!). If you went to school that had a lot of Korean students, open your yearbook and wait till you get to the page for the people with the last name that starts with “K”. You will see a whole page devoted to all the Korean students with the last name “Kim”.

How about this? The first Korean player to make it to the Major League Baseball was Park Chan Ho, the first swimmer to win a gold medal at the Olympics was Park Tae Hwan, the first soccer (okay, football) player to play for Manchester United was Park Ji Sung. Oh, the current president of South Korea is Park Geun Hye. Former presidents are the late Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam. Guess the name of the current president of World Bank? Jim Yong Kim. Also on the list is the Olympic figure skating champion Kim (Queen) Yuna. All right, Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of North Korea is a member of the Kim club as well. Did you know that Hollywood actor Lee Byung Hun and Lee Ki Hong are also of Korean ancestry? Right, that funny comedian Bobby Lee is also a Korean-American.

At this point, you might have concluded that the Parks are great athletes, the Kims are great leaders, and the Lees are great entertainers, but that’s not the point I am trying to make here. The gist of the story is that there are only 286 last names in Korea (not counting those of naturalized Koreans), and Kim, Lee, Park, and Choi make up more than the majority.[i] For a quick comparison, there are 151,671 last names in the U.S.[ii], over 100,000 in Japan[iii], and over 1,800 in Russia[iv].

So how did this happen? Let’s dig a little deeper. Despite having had been under the Chinese influence, Korean family name system has been able to form and maintain unique characteristics, in accordance with their history, culture, and tradition.

For example, Korean family names are not representative of the whole family, but only the paternal line. At this point you might be thinking that all Koreans must be somehow related to one another, considering the fact that there are only 286 family names from which they originate. But thanks to bon gwan (본관), the birthplace of the first ancestor or founder of the family name (there are whopping 4,179 of them present today), one family clan can be distinguished from one another. Within that, it is further divided into various factions. [v][vi]

In real life, for example, for someone with last name Kim, it can be “Gyungju Kim”, meaning that its lineage is rooted in the place of Gyungju (i.e., the founder was born here). Also, many Korean families keep (or have access to) a detailed record of family lineage, so by comparing your faction, you know what your familial status is. If you happened to be Mr. Kang, we can play the game like this. “Are you also a ‘Jinju’ Kang?” “Oh yes, what faction do you come from? Mine is ‘Eunyeolgong’” “Mine as well! What generation are you? I’m 35th.” “Oh, really? I am from the 33rd”. “Hm… that means I should call you uncle.”

Another interesting characteristic is that most of the Korean names are composed of three syllables. For one-syllable last names such as Kim, Lee, and Park, they are followed by two-syllable first names such as Min Ho, Ji Hoon, and Young Soo. For double-syllable last names (there aren’t that many) such as Namkung, Jegal, and Sunwoo, one-syllable first names such as are commonly given. Of course, there are quite a lot of people with a two-syllable last name with a two-syllable first name, making it a four-syllable name.

So, what do you think? A Korean name can be a simple set of three syllables, but it is more like a unique code that contains a huge amount of family history and tradition.


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