• Featured: a name card reading "Hello my name is Kim Eebak". Kim is the surname. (via Twitter)
Over half of South Koreans are named Park, Lee, or Kim. But why is there such little disparity in Korean surnames?
By
Shami Sivasubramanian

7 Nov 2016 - 1:06 PM  UPDATED 7 Nov 2016 - 3:28 PM

South Korea is home to over 50 million people. Of those 50 million, around 10 million have the surname Kim.

In fact, the most popular surnames in South Korea are Kim, Lee, and Park, which make up the surnames of half the population.

But why is there such little disparity between surnames in Korea?

The Economist reports surnames were an extraneous frill in Korean society up until the Joseon dynasty between 1392 and 1910. After that point, surnames were a function of power and class, attributed to royals and nobility in Korea, known as ‘yanban’.

Lee and Kim, in particular, connote an air of royalty.

Lower socio-economic communities, such as slaves and labourers, had little use for last names or the luxury it suggested.

There are of course exceptions to this. Wang Geon of the preceding Goryeo dynasty (918 -1392) issued surnames to royal subjects he found to be more loyal and faithful, regardless of their original social standing.

The most popular surnames in South Korea are Kim, Lee, and Park, which make up the surnames of half the population.

However, as the mercantile class began to grow in wealth, so did their desire to grow in standing. Surnames became a luxury they could afford, literally,

“It became increasingly common for successful merchants to take on a last name, too. They could purchase an elite genealogy by physically buying a genealogical book (jokbo)—perhaps that of a bankrupt yangban—and using his surname,” writes The Economist.

By the 18 century, surname forgery was rampant. Fudging family records to “write in” a non-relative from a dying noble bloodline was commonplace, and allowed commoners to adopt a new shiny noble surname.

Dr Donald Baker from the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia says, “Those elites tended to adopt surnames that would make it plausible to claim that they had ancestors from China, then the country Koreans admired the most.”

In 1894, the Korean class system was abolished and in 1904 a new census regulation mandated all Koreans to register a surname.

In fact, it’s still popular today for naturalised South Korean citizens to adopt a Korean surname; popular choices include Kim, Lee, Park, and Choi.

However, as the mercantile class began to grow in wealth, so did their desire to grow in standing. Surnames became a luxury they could afford, literally,

But wouldn’t that get confusing? Sung-Yoon Lee, assistant professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, says conventions in Korean society make allowances for it.

Most full Korean names are typically only three syllables, making it much less cumbersome to call someone by their full name in even any situation.

“In the Seoul parliament, you would address each assemblyman by his full name plus the honorific 'Assemblyman,'" he says. “If you have a small group of people where each has a different last name and there is no ambiguity, you would omit the first name and just say 'Assemblyman Kim.'”

Hence, in today’s South Korea, surnames no longer point to a family’s genealogy, but are simply a relic of the country’s politico-economic history. 

related
These are the faces of Korea's last real-life mermaids
The hard work of the Haenyeo, Korea's female free-divers, is captured in a stunning photo series that pays tribute to their centuries-old tradition.
These baby names are inspired by Pokemon
Succeeding in Pokemon GO is no child's play but these youngsters will be carrying on the game's legacy long after their parents lose interest in the app.
The Korean gothic lesbian revenge thriller that’s captivated Cannes
Park Chan-Wook's 'The Handmaiden' takes a 2002 historical crime novel set in Victorian England and places it in 1930s Korea under Japanese colonialism.