Are you wondering why many Koreans have the same last names? It’s a mystery for most people, which we will tackle in today’s post. Basically, Korean last names are known as 성 (pronounced as seong) and are usually gotten by the locals through their parents, husband, and/or masters back in the day.
You’ll find many people with the same last names in North and South Korea, like Lee, Kim, and Park. For example, the Korean family surname ‘Kim.’ After listening to this word, you most likely remember many famous people with this surname, such as Kim Bum, Kim Tae-hee, Kim Ji-soo, and Kim Da-mi.
As outsiders, the first time we encounter Korean last names, we cannot stop ourselves from becoming curious. Are all Koreans with the same last names both in South Korea and North Korea related to each other? Why do they have the same surnames? What are the most common Korean last names?
Well, if you want answers to those questions, keep on reading!
Korean Last Names: A Brief Background
One of the most interesting things about Korean culture is their last names. The Korean word for last name or surname is 성 (seong). With a total of 51 million population, isn’t it amazing to know that Korean last names are mostly just Kim, Lee, and Park? These Korean last names are called “the big three”.
In year 2015, there were a total of 286 Korean last names were used by Koreans. If you think about it, this number is extremely low for a country with a population of 51 million. This is because Korea is dominated by “the big three” of Korean last names, which are Kim, Lee, and Park.
The Most Popular Korean Last Names
The Korean last name Kim is on the top with a total of 10,689 967 people whose last name is Kim. This is equivalent to 21.5% of South Korea’s population. Another popular Korean last name is Lee which covers 14.7% of the population, and Park, which covers 8.4% of the population. Other popular Korean surnames are Choi, Jung, Kang, Jo, Yoon, Jang, and Im.
Here’s the top 10 list of popular Korean last names:
- Kim (김)
- Lee (이)
- Park (박)
- Choi (최)
- Jeong (정)
- Kang (강)
- Cho/Jo (조)
- Yoon/Yun (윤)
- Jang (장)
- Im (임)
Why Do Koreans Have The Same Last Name?
The answer can be traced all the way back to the first Korean Kingdom, which is the Gaya and Silla. Back then, the last names of the royal family of both kingdoms are Kim. The surname Kim became the most sought-after last name in Korea. But, what’s interesting about this is that during those times, last names are only reserved for individuals with power or for people in the upper class.
How Do Koreans Get Their Last Names?
If the Korean last names Kim, Lee, and Park are mostly for the royals, how do commoners get these Korean last names? Koreans have three ways to get their surnames.
The first but very uncommon way to get the last name is when the King gifted the last name to someone as a favor.
This is also a rare situation, but it still happens. In Korean, a genealogy book is called jokbo or chokbo. It is used to record the family history and ancestors.
The census is the most common and definitely the easiest way to get the last name. An individual will just have to register during the census every three years.
What Is The Prevalence Of Korean Last Names?
During 500 years of ruling Joseon, commoners gradually acquired their Korean last names. In fact, even the slaves had their last names in the last hundred years and chose to adopt the Korean last names Kim, Lee, and Park. These last names have grown so significant to the point that even commoners and slaves used them to hide their social hierarchy. So, if you’re asking if all Koreans with the same last names are related by blood, well, definitely not.
During the Japanese colonization period, Koreans were forced to have last names, and people chose Lee, Park, Kim, Jung, Choi, Jo, Yoon, Kang, Im, Jang, Shin, and Yu.
Today, many Koreans have Kim, Park, and Lee as their last names. These “big three” are the prestigious Korean last names that are primarily associated with royals and the upper class. The last name Kim means gold, and it is also the last name of Kings. So, if your last name is one of the “big three,” people will look at you with respect.
What Are The Surnames Used In South Korea?
|Meanings||Korean Last Names|
|within, interior, or back||An (안)|
|a common Korean surname that means tranquility||Ahn (안)|
|derived from a Korean word that means room||Bang (방)|
|wealth, fortune, or part||Bu (부)|
|empty or void||Bin (빈)|
|derived from the Chinese surname that has lots of references like excitable, impatient, or edge||Byun (변)|
|This last name relates to a chariot and dates back to the 10th century AD on the Korean peninsula||Cha (차)|
|brushwood||Chay (어떤 것)|
|derived from a Chinese word that means firewood||Chai (차이)|
|another popular Korean surname derived that has a Chinese origin that means prosperous or flourishing||Chang (창)|
|quiet, or gentle||Cheong (청)|
|limb or a branch||Chi (치)|
|second, beginning, or candle||Cho (초)|
|derived from the Korean term high tower or lofty||Choi (최)|
|derived from the Chinese word Zhu. It can refer to the name of an ancient state in China, “Zhu”. It can also mean vermilion red. It was the family name of Ming dynasty emperors and is derived from the ancient state of Zhu||Chu (추)|
|justice, party, or sugar||Dang (당)|
|East root or foundation||Dong-Geun (동근)|
|a Korean family name that originated from the Chinese word Jiang, which means ginger||Gang (강)|
|a prevalent last name among Chinese individuals from the Tang Dynasty||Gok (곡)|
|pipe or tube||Gwan (관)|
|“scenery” or view||Gyeon (견)|
|derived from Xia, which means summer||Ha (하아)|
|crane or learning||Hak (학)|
|Weighing scales seller. This surname came from the western Korean occupational surname||Hahm (흠)|
|a country or a leader||Han (한)|
|one of the rarest Korean surnames that means to permit or advocate||Heo (허)|
|one of the famous Korean family names that mean fierce or brave||Ho (호)|
|derived from the Chinese word that means great||Hong (홍)|
|also has a Chinese origin that means yellow||Hwang (황)|
|a unique Korean surname that means mysterious and profound||Hyun (현)|
|a popular Korean last name derived from the Korean word Lin which means forest||Im (임)|
|stamp or India||In (에)|
|bowyer or archer||Jang (장)|
|came from the word Zhi which means ambition or will||Jee (지)|
|chisel, tablet, or quiet||Jeong (정)|
|camp, lost, true, or a sign of a dragon||Jin (진)|
|came from an ancient city in Shanxi province||Joh (조)|
|bell, end, or species||Jong (목)|
|to hallow, empty, or sky||Kong (콩)|
|tree or wood||Ki (기)|
|among the top Korean surnames, which means gold, metal, or iron||Kim (김)|
|utensils or tools||Ku (구)|
|a variant of the Korean last name “Kwack” that means the surrounding area||Kwak (곽)|
|a Korean last name originally from Japan||Kangjeon (강전)|
|one of the common Korean last names, which means dependable||Lim (임)|
|Formed from the Sino-Korean word “Li”. This Korean surname means “plum tree”||Lee (이)|
|after the Mokch’ŏn Ma clan||Ma (마)|
|only or just||Man (만)|
|falcon or clan||Mae (매)|
|man or south||Nam (남)|
|another one of the most common Koren last names in Korea means gourd||Park/Bak (박)|
|plate, edition, or board||Pan (판)|
|came from the name of the Pae clan||Pae (패)|
|number four||Ryu (유)|
|felicitous omen or auspicious||Seo (瑞)|
|tin or stone||Seok (石)|
|to unfold, be comfortable, open up, unfold, or be easy||Seo-jun (瑞)|
|succeeded or finished. Othe Korean variant of this last name is Sung, Soung, and Song||Seong (성)|
|rank or meritorious deed||Seong-Hun (성훈)|
|to start or begin||Si-u (시우)|
|The Song dynasty was the source of Song||Song (송)|
|The Shin Clans of the Chinese and Korean Peninsular regions are the origins of the surname Shin (신)||Shin (신)|
|derived from the Chinese word dou. This last name means dipper or unit of measure||To (에)|
|King or monarch||Wang (왕)|
|Willow tree||Yoo (요)|
|the eldest||Yun/Yoon (윤)|
What Are The Rarest Last Names In Korea?
Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without the rarest last names. These rare last names are usually reserved for people whose relatives were from a noble rank before South Korea’s democratic government. It may even be hard for celebrities to bear these unique surnames.
Here are just some of the rarest last names in Korea that you may (or may not) encounter.
- Sam (삼)
- Jeo (저(邸)
- Noe (뇌)
- Eo Geum (어금)
- Cheon (천)
- Geun (근)
Learn Korean With Ling App
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While Korean last name have phonetic sound, last name also have different characteristic spelling (hanja). As they say do not judge a book by its cover, and with Korean last name, do not make assumption based on the sound but also look at its origin from the character associated with its original ideogram.