There are over 50 million people living in South Korea. Of these 50 million, about 10 million have the last name Kim. In fact, the most popular surnames in South Korea are Kim, Lee, and Park, which make up the surnames of half the population. As a culture or nation, it is quite unusual for such a large portion of the population to focus on a few surnames. Why are there so few surnames in Korea?
Why are so many people named „Kim“ in Korea? Explanation, History
Surnames played a major role in Korean society until the Joseon Dynasty between 1392 and 1910. After that, family names were a function of power and class, attributed to kings and nobility in Korea and known as „Yanban.“ Names such as Kim, Lee, and Park have royal origins. Kim has two roots; one from the royal family of the Silla Dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD) and the other from the royal family of the Gaya Confederacy (42 AD – 562 AD). When the two countries merged, the Kim surname became one of the most populous names.
Lee and Kim, in particular, represent a royal atmosphere. Lower socioeconomic communities such as slaves and laborers did not have surnames at that time. There are exceptions, of course. Wang Geon of the previous Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) gave royal subjects surnames that he felt were more loyal and faithful, regardless of their original social position.
The Korean peninsula had a long period of three kingdoms: Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. After centuries of conflict, Silla unified the peninsula in 668 until it was overtaken by a new dynasty called Goryeo (918-1392). The Kim families of Silla were absorbed into the monarchy and received noble status from the ruling Wang family.
See: K-Pop / Korean dictionary
Korea, Kims and the Role of Slaves
During the Joseon Dynasty, slaves made up 50-60% of the population at its peak. Only nobles had family names, while slaves were not given legal names – meaning that more than half of the country was nameless. The status of slaves shifted drastically in the 17th century after two wars against Japan and China’s Qing Dynasty.
When two successive wars deprived Joseon of tax revenues, the monarchy allowed slaves to buy names and increase their social status. This was to bring in revenue from the sale of royal and noble names and to attract more taxpayers, since slaves could not pay taxes.
Most slaves bought popular and powerful family names to solidify their new status. Names such as Kim, Lee, and Park belonged to either royal or powerful noble families. Some slaves also chose to follow the family name of their former master. Therefore, powerful families that owned many slaves saw an increase in family size.
The Role of Growing Trade
There were more and more merchants in Korea over time who tried to enter the market. However, many previously worked as slaves and few possessed a name. Surnames became a luxury they could literally afford. Successful merchants increasingly adopted a surname as well. They could buy an elite genealogy by physically buying a genealogical book and using a surname. Many took surnames from bankrupt merchants.
In the 18th century, forgery of family names was widespread. It was commonplace to falsify family records to „inscribe“ a non-relative from a dying noble bloodline, and allow citizens to adopt a new shiny noble surname.
In 1894, the Korean class system was abolished, and in 1904, a new census ordinance required all Koreans to register a surname. In fact, to this day it is popular among naturalized South Korean citizens to adopt a Korean surname. Popular options include Kim, Lee, Park and Choi.
Bottom line: why are so many people named „Kim“ in Korea? Explanation
Korea’s unique history allowed for the lack of diversity in surnames. The long history of dynastic successions solidified the status of royal and noble families. Slaves later bought their right to become nobles by acquiring the right to own a popular family name, and Japanese colonial rule concluded the current state of concentration on some popular family names.