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Why do Korean people only have like… three last names? Kim, Lee, Park?

For this topic, let’s start with a little trivia – what could the Korean proverb “looking for a Mr. Kim in Seoul”, possibly mean? Well, look for the clues throughout the following story and you should be able to answer it on your own. First off, if you went to school that had a lot of Korean students, grab your yearbook, dust it off, and find the index page and locate the “K” section. Lo and behold, you would immediately realize that the descendants of the Kim family are claiming the lion’s share of the real estate.

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The same can be said for last names Lee, and Park, and if you recall the names of your Korean friends (or if you don’t have one, think of your favorite K-Pop star), the chances are pretty good they are one of the three. What’s more, 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. Notice that the Romanization of a Korean name places the last name (family name) before the given name, so for the sake of clarity, I will use the term “family name” from this point on. Of the past 12 presidents of Korea, 2 were Parks, 2 were Kims, and 2 were Lees. Guess the name of the current president of the World Bank? Jim Yong Kim (Kim is the family name here). 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. And did you know that Hollywood actor Lee Byung Hun (Terminator Genisys, The Magnificent Seven, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) and Lee Ki Hong (Maze Runner) are also of Korean ancestry? Even that funny comedian Bobby Lee from MAD TV is also a Korean-American.

Based on the data I presented, 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’m trying to make here. The gist of the story is that there are only 286 family names in Korea (as of 2003, not counting those from naturalized Koreans), and the Kim, Lee, Park people make up more than 45% of the entire Korean population (Kim at 21.8%, Lee at 14.8%, and Park at 8.5%)! For a quick comparison, there are over 1,800 family names in Russia with the most common family name Smirnov making up only a meager 1.8% of the Russian population. Over 100,000 in Japan share the name Sato as it is known for being the most common, and all top 10 combined make up just 10% of the entire population! In the U.S., Smith is  the most common with just 151,671 sharing this last name, close to 1% of the entire population.

If you are an avid investor, this is certainly not a well-diversified portfolio. So what’s with the disproportionate population? Are Korean families inbred? Is it a case of endogamy? On the surface, such speculations don’t look completely groundless, especially after knowing that there are only 286 family names available (by the way, the Korean naming conventions are patronymic, which inherits the family name of one’s father, grandfather, but it’s possible to adopt a mother’s family name is allowed, although some tedious jumping through administrative hoops are required). With that, you have every right to wonder if all Koreans are somehow related to each other, but that’s when this thing called bongwan 본관 comes in to get things in order. It’s a concept used to distinguish clans with the same family name, as it tells the birthplace of the first ancestor or founder of the family name (according to a survey done in 2015, there are 36,744 of them).

So members of a certain family name who also happen to share the same paternal ancestor or progenitor are said to be of the same clan. Utilizing this grouping system, one clan can be distinguished from one another, and within each clan, it gets further divided into various factions.

RELATED : WHAT does a Korean family look like? No matter what part of the world you live in, home is where the drama is, and Korean homes are where the K-Dramas are!

Also, many Korean families, or their “lineage society,” keep a detailed record of family lineage in a genealogy book called jokbo 족보. By comparing your faction you can see what your familial status is and your “generation level” (more on this later). Some onomasts (people who study proper names, especially the names of people and places) often liken bongwan to the European naming convention that incorporates the place of origin within a name (e.g., Olivia von Westenholz = “Olivia from Westenholz”). The difference is that the Korean system doesn’t display the label upfront, so it requires a little more digging into one’s family history. Oh, and an interesting fact – up until 2005, a couple of the same last name and bongwan were not allowed to be married by law!

To put it in perspective, let’s look at a real-life example.

many Korean families, or their “lineage society,” keep a detailed record of family lineage in a genealogy book called jokbo 족보. By comparing your faction you can see what your familial status is and your “generation level”


Dueum beopchik 두음법칙 (“initial sound rule”) is a grammar rule to facilitate easier pronunciation for certain Sino-Korean words, including last names based on Chinese characters, that begin with ㄹ (l/r) and ㄴ (n).

1) When ㄹ (l/r) is placed in the onset position of the first syllable in a word, followed by the vowels ㅏ/ㅐ/ㅗ/ㅚ/ㅜ/ㅡ (a/ae/o/oe/u/eu), they are replaced with ㄴ (n). 

Example) Mr. 로철수 Roh Cheol-su -> Mr. 노철수 Noh Cheol-su (when written in English, it takes the original sound, Roh).

2) When ㄹ (l/r) is placed in the onset position of the first syllable in a word, followed by the vowels ㅑ/ㅕ/ㅖ/ㅛ/ㅠ/ㅣ (ya/yeo/ye/yo/yu/i), they are replaced with ㅇ (no onset sound). 

Example) 리철수 Lee Cheol-su -> 이철수 Yi Cheol-su (when written in English, it takes the original sound, Lee/Ri/Rhee, but some choose to use Yi, to keep the revised pronunciation.) 

Now that we’ve covered the family name portion of a Korean name, let’s turn to how a Korean first name is composed! Continued on the next article WHY DO ALL KOREAN NAMES HAVE THREE SYLLABLES?

RELATED : Korean For Everyone – Complete Beginner Lesson #1 – CONSONANTS & VOWELS : Let’s Learn How to Read and Pronounce Korean alphabet Hangul 한글!

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