It’s impossible to tell how many there are exactly, but the number of unique surnames in the United States alone is said to be between 1.5 million and 2 million, ranging from Jones to Smith, Williams, and Anderson. In contrast, in Korea, we know exactly how many. The number of surnames used in Korea in 2015 was 286, in a nation of 51 million people, it doesn’t seem like a lot of variety. In reality, the big three are Kim, Lee, and Park seem to rule Korea. In fact, it’s estimated that 10,689,967 Koreans, or around 20.6% of the population, have the last name Kim.
When you consider that 14.1% of people had the last name Lee and 8.1% had the last name Park, that leaves 42.8% of Koreans with the last names Kim, Lee, or Park. In fact, when you stop to think about it, how many Kims do we know? Choi, Jung, Kang, Jo, Yoon, Jang, and Im round out the top ten.
With 2.4 million persons, or 0.73% of the population, having the last name Smith, it is the most common in the United States. If the top three last names Smith, Johnson, and Williams were combined, only 1.6% of Americans would have those names, which is quite crazy to consider for a name that would be used by one-fifth of the population.
So how precisely did it come to be this way? And why do all Koreans share the same last names? Are all Kim, Lee, and Park related, to begin with? First and importantly, definitely not! Each surname has a unique origin story, but let’s focus on Kim in order to explain why we need to go all the way back to the early Kingdoms of Korea.
Gaya and Silla were the two kingdoms. Kim was the last name of the royal family in both countries. The Gaya Kingdom governed from 40 AD until it was incorporated by the Silla Kingdom in 562, which ruled from 57 BC to 935 AD. King Munmu of Sia, whose real name was Kim Bopmin, actually became the first ruler of the united Silla country. Kim rose to fame and became a very popular last name, but in the last few centuries, surnames were incredibly uncommon.
For distinguished persons, such as royalty or members of the upper class, last names were reserved. So how did regular people acquire a last name like Kim? The last names of Koreans were acquired in one of three ways. The first, albeit extremely rare, method is that Kings would give common people surnames as a sign of favor to the king. In the past, only the elite had last names; commoners gradually obtained last names, and slaves didn’t have last names until nearly the end of the Joseon period.
Contrary to the widespread belief, Koreans did not frequently purchase their way into genealogy books, though it did happen on occasion. Many people claim that genealogy books are a bad source since so many individuals have bought their way in, but this is mostly inaccurate because you can check the lines in earlier editions published before the 20th century to see if anyone has been added. It is utterly untrue that you have to pay to access genealogy books.
The third option, which involved signing up during the census that was conducted every three years, was the simplest and by far the most popular. Every time a census was done, you could simply register and get a name. We can also see in the census records that those without surnames will appear to have them, so getting a surname wasn’t a major concern. It only required registering with the government for the triennial every three-year census, which didn’t include making a purchase or opening a genealogy book.
Over the course of the Joseon dynasty’s five hundred years, commoners gradually adopted last names, and in the final century of the dynasty, some slaves did as well. However, neither commoners nor slaves created any new names; rather, they adopted many of the common names that are still used today, such as Kim, Lee, and Park. Since it had spread so widely, almost no one with the last name Kim was connected to anybody else by blood. Commoners could now adopt these distinguished names to conceal their lower-class upbringing.
In 1894, the class-based system, which was akin to the caste system in India or the social class system in medieval Europe, came to an end. As a result, everyone, not just kings and the wealthy, could now use last names. What makes Kim the choice from all the last names available? In any case, Kim, which in Korean means “gold,” was a name that inspired and brought dignity, prominence, and power. The Kings family used it as a last name. Someone was considered important if they had the last names Kim, Lee, or Park. People respect you, and at first, the name Kim served as a status symbol for early Koreans, much as commoners in Europe, albeit unusual, could be knighted, or possessing a sword in feudal Japan, or even owning a car in the early 1900s, would all be imports and prestige symbols. The early 1900s Japanese occupation forced nearly everyone to choose a last name, and 55% of people chose Kim, Lee, Park, Choi, or Jung. With the addition of seven more common last names—Jo, Kang, Yoon, Im, Jang, Shin, or Yu—the population’s last name distribution rises to 70%. Today, having an iPhone would be analogous to having that privilege. This nation is unique in the world for having twelve surnames that are all quite popular.
It is one of the indications of Korea’s long-term stability and peace that there are so many Kims, Lees, and Parks in the country. The concept is that there is a huge concentration of names in Korea, but because Koreans are accustomed to this situation and believe that this is just how it is, they don’t notice that it is uncommon. However, many nations do not operate in this manner.
Kim, Lee, and Park are the most popular names because they are the royal names of the earlier dynasties and they represent a symbol of Korea. When the Gaya and Shilla dynasties fell, they were never destroyed; instead, that aristocracy continued on from Gaya into Shilla, from Shilla into Goguryeo, from Goguryeo into the present day.