How long have you been in Korea? And during that time, how many Mr. Kims have you met? Not only Mr. Kim, but how about Mr. Lee or Mr. Park? Dozens, no? Well, when you’re Korean, it’s in the hundreds and even thousands; the Mr. Kims, Lees, and Parks whom we know. In school or at work, it’s quite common to find people who share the same family name, people who aren’t related to each other at all.
Korean family names date back for centuries, almost as long as the history of civilization on the peninsula itself. For example, Jumong (주몽), the founder of the kingdom Goguryeo (고구려, 37BCE ~ 668), took Go (고, 高) as his family name, while Kim Suro (김수로), the founder of the Gaya Confederacy (42 ~ 562) took Kim (김, 金) as his, because the legend says he was born from a golden egg. (The Chinese character for Kim means “gold”.) As the Korean alphabet Hangeul wasn’t invented back then, the names were heavily influenced by China, so the most of the names used hanja, usually one syllable or two.
In ancient times, family names were only used by nobility, most of them bestowed upon them by royalty. As time passed, more and more people decided upon family names to distinguish themselves; by 19th century Joseon Dynasty, the caste system was abolished, so by early 20th century, the whole population had family names. When the lower class earned the right to have family names, many adopted the names of revered royalty or nobility – thus the many Kims, Lees, and Parks.
According to the 2000 census, there are about 290 registered family names, with the family name Kim accounting for approximately 22% of Korea’s population, followed by Lee (15%) and Park (9%). The 3 family names already make up for nearly half of the country. The ranking of the top 10 family names has not changed in decades, although more and more new family names have appeared, most likely due to the gradual cultural diversification.
Because there are relatively few family names compared to the entire population, families are divided into clans called bongwan (본관), which are regionally based. Because these clans are bound to their region, there would be various family names associated with that clan. For example, Silla Dynasty’s (신라, BC 57∼AD 935) capital city of Gyeongju (경주) is the bongwan to 6 different family names, all descendents of the village chiefs who helped the founding of the kingdom.
Clans are then divided into branches called pa (파), although most people wouldn’t be aware with which family branch they are associated, especially the younger generation. However, almost all Koreans know which bongwan they are from and will ask someone with the same family name which clan they belong to as casual conversation.
It was forbidden until the 1990s to marry someone with the same family name from the same clan. There still are some people of the older generation who do not think it appropriate because they think it’s marrying within family, despite it probably meaning the shared ancestor is from 1,000 years ago.
In Korean names, the family name comes first. So the footballer Park Jisung’s (박지성) last name would be Park, and figure skater Kim Yuna’s (김연아) last name would be Kim. (Thus in Korean, the family name would not be “last” name but “first” name.) These particular names are easy to understand because the family names are familiar and the Romanized spelling of their given names are spelled as one word. However, as most Korean names are composed of 3 syllables including the family name, given names aren’t necessarily written as one word when Romanized. Some may separate all their syllables and write Park Ji Sung, or use a hyphen to differentiate the family name from the given name: Park Ji-Sung or Park Ji-sung.
The official Romanization spelling method has changed over the years, so expect people to have a variety of different spellings for the same family name. For example, my family name is 정 – which my Dad decided to spell as Chung on our passports so Chung it is – but which is spelled more commonly as Jeong or Jung. Same goes for 장, which can be spelled as Jang or Chang. Kim/Gim, Lee/Yi/Rhee, Park/Pak/Bak, Jo/Cho, Lim/Im, Yoon/Yun are in the same vein. By the way, the Korean spellings are all the same, the alphabet being phonetic. There would also be exceptions from the standard Romanization as well; there are always people who like to be eccentric.
The family name is almost always paternal. Women do not change their family name when they get married – they keep the one they were born with – but children usually follow the father’s family name. Due to the rising number of divorce, revised Family Laws allowing children to have their mother’s family name were passed in 2008, a very recent development.
Roll call at school or the receptionist at the doctor’s would be calling your name but in Korea, unless you’re family, related, close friends or the equivalent, it’s not that often you get called by name. People are usually addressed by their title or rank (Teacher, Director, Manager, Team Captain, Doctor, Driver, Customer, etc), or their relationship to you (Aunt, Uncle, Sunbae, Unni, Hyeong, Oppa, etc).
A recent trend is to attach “nim” (님, honorable person) at the end of someone’s name, which is largely due to the internet and it’s characteristic of anonymity. Age, gender, social status all became less important online, so instead of calling someone by their title, people started calling one another by their online handle/nickname and added “nim” to be polite. That trend trickled into the real world where the “nim” became a standard, even being used with real names.
One last thing. The equivalent of Mr/Miss/Ms in Korean would be ssi (씨), but it is NEVER used to address someone older, a senior, someone of a higher rank or title. The Koreanized English “meestuh” (미스터, Mr) and “meeseu” (미스, Miss) are NOT used in a polite and formal setting unless the conversation is being held in another language besides Korean (there is a derogatory vibe to it) or if the person wishes to be addressed as so. Although the post’s title mentions Mr. Kim, it is rarely used in a Korean language setting, so please take note.