If you have ever met a Korean person, there is a good chance that the last name is either Lee or Kim. In pop culture, they propagate a stereotype about Koreans having the same last name. Yet, the truth is Korea has over 280 last names as reported by the South Korean government. Korea has a long, rich history that is reflected in the diversity of last names. Even a common last name like Kim, Lee, and Park may have sub-classification based on the family clan.
According to the most recent survey in 2015, Kim, Lee, Park, and Choi were the most populous last names. Most of the last names are written in Chinese characters as the country used the Chinese writing system. This practice persisted even after King Sejong invented a new writing system, Hangul. As Korea modernized and opened its door to the outside world, Koreans started romanizing their last names. However, inconsistent romanization practices spun off many spellings for a given last name. Here are the most common Korean last names and their origins.
Kim is the most populous last name where 1 in 5 people have the last name. The last name is often romanized as Gim. Proliferation of the Kim clan in Korea is largely thanks to the ruling royal family of the Silla dynasty. For almost 600 years, the Kim family ruled a large portion of the Korean peninsula. There are many Kim clans, but two stands above the rest. Those are Kims hailing from Gimhae and those from Gyeongju.
Gimhae Kims can trace their heritance to Princess Heo Hwang Ok who settled down in present-day Gimhae after she married Geumgwan Gaya. Even more remarkably, 4 million people in South Korea can trace their ancestry to her. In a country of 51 million people, that’s quite a feat!
Similar to the Gimhae Kims, the Gyeongju Kims belong to the royal Silla family. According to a legend, the clan’s founder, Gim Al Ji, was found in a golden box by a royal servant. Upon seeing the infant, the king ordered a decree to adopt him as a son.
Lee, which can be romanized as Yi, Rhee, Yee, or Li, is the second most common last name in Korea. The last name is also a common Chinese last name with over 100 million descendants.
Even though Lees may not be as populous as Kims, Lees have held high offices in modern Korea. Notable Lees from the Gyeongju clan inclue Lee Byung Chul, the founder of Samsung Group, and Rhee Syngman, the first president of modern-day South Korea.
Park, which can be romanized as Pak, Bak, or Baik, is the third most populous surname. Similar to other surnames, Parks have numerous clans, but all can trace their ancestry to the founder of the Silla dynasty, Park Hyeokgeose. According to a legend, he was born out of a red egg that was placed after an intense lightning storm. After being found by a group of clansmen, he emitted a bright light and caused the moon and the sun to simultaneously appear over the horizon. As a boy, he quickly gained the respect of other clan leaders. At the age of 13, he gained the title of a king, Geo Seo Gan.
Choi is the fourth most populous Korean last name. Much like the other populous surnames, Choi’s ancestry can be tied to the birth of the Silla dynasty. Even though, over 160 Choi clans exist, most belong to the Gyeongju Choi clan. The clan founder, Choe Chi Won, was a politician that went to China to learn Confucious teachings. While studying in China, he took the Tang dynasty imperial examination and rose through the government ranks. Upon hearing troubles in Silla, he decided to come back to Korea. Unfortunately, his attempts were met with government bureaucracy and ultimately failed. Disheartened, he went up the mountains to the Hae In Sa temple and became a Buddhist scholar.