The current president of South Korea is named Park Geun-hye (Park being her surname). Her predecessor in that office was named Lee Myung-bak; before him, for most of the 1990s, South Korea was ruled by men named Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam. In the neighboring dictatorship of North Korea, of course, we have witnessed a 60-year family dynasty featuring leaders named Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. Outside of the realm of politics, some of the most famous Koreans in the world include actor/model Kim Soo-hyun, Olympic swimmer Park Tae-hwan, figure skater Kim Yu-na, and, of course, Gangnam-style singer/entertainer Psy (real name: Park Jae-sang). In addition, Korea’s iconic Samsung Electronics corporation was founded by Lee Byung-chul and now headed by a man named Lee Kun-hee.
Notice a pattern?
In a phenomenon that may be completely unique to the Korean culture – which comprise some 75 million people who live on the Korean peninsula, and another 7 million in the global diaspora -- only three surnames, Kim, Lee and Park, account for the appellations of nearly one-half of all Koreans. According to South Korea’s National Statistical Office, the most popular Korean surnames after those first “big three” are: Choi, Jeong, Kang, Yoon, Jang and Shin.
But "Kim" remains the champ by a wide margin, with government statistics suggesting that more than one-fifth of all Koreans have this surname, some 10 million of them in South Korea alone. (In the United States, the most popular surnames are Smith, Jones and Williams, but they do not dominate the American naming landscape the way Kim, Lee and Park do in Korea. (Of course, the U.S. is a far more ethnically diverse nation than the essentially homogenous state of Korea).
On the whole, according to various accounts, there are no more than about 250 surnames currently in use in Korea (in contrast, in Japan and the Netherlands there are more than 100,000 active surnames in each society). Korea's paucity of surnames and the heavy concentration of a handful of those names are linked to the peninsula's long feudal history and its complex relationships with aggressive neighbors China and Japan.
Dr. Donald Baker of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia in Canada told International Business Times that Korea’s ties with China have particularly factored into the predominance of a limited pool of surnames in the country. Indeed, the Chinese, who have had a significant influence on Korean history and culture, are key to this discussion. Korean names use Chinese characters, reflecting the Korean aristocracy's adoption of Confucian naming models (i.e., full names) as long ago as the fifth century. Commoners on the peninsula did not have that privilege.
“For much of Korean history, only the elite had surnames,” Baker said. “Those elites tended to adopt surnames that would make it plausible to claim that they had ancestors from China, then the country Koreans admired the most. There were only a few such surnames. So, when commoners began acquiring surnames [later], they grabbed one already in use to bask in the prestige of the families that were already using that surname.” Baker further noted that Korea was an aristocratic society until the modern era, with only a few families at the top of the social ladder. “That limited the number of 'high-prestige' surnames available,” he added.
Sung-Yoon Lee, assistant professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston, told IBTimes that during the late Silla period of Korean history (coinciding with the ninth and 10th centuries of the Christian era), the practice of adopting Chinese-character surnames among the Korean nobility became popular.
“‘Kim’ and ‘Park’ were the [principal] royal names from this period,” he said. “Choi came a bit later. And Lee was the [founder of the] dynasty of the Chosun Kingdom [which lasted from 1392-1910], the longest administrative dynasty in [world] history.” During late 19th century, in the wake of reforms and the abolition of the rigid class system in Korea, the official adoption of Chinese-character surnames (which were mostly monosyllabic) became common for the wider Korean population. When the long-oppressed common people, who hitherto had no surnames, were given the "privilege" of selecting one, they chose "noble" surnames like Kim and Lee.
Eugene Y. Park, Associate Professor of History and Director of the James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies at University of Pennsylvania, told IB Times that by 1392 (the start of Chosun dynasty), roughly 70 percent of Koreans were using surnames -- meaning everyone but slaves.
By the time the Japanese Empire seized Korea in 1910 (upon the collapse of the Chosun dynasty), most Koreans already had surnames, and those who didn’t simply adopted the surnames of their masters, who had a limited number of names available. "Under the strict social hierarchy in which only influential families were treated with respect, people of [the] lower social classes may have wanted to cover up their [modest] backgrounds by adopting noble family names," said an anthropologist named Kim Young-un in an essay collection entitled "Let's Talk About History and Future of Korea, China and Japan."
Kim Young-un estimated that more than 130 Korean surnames were adopted from China. Incidentally, Lee (or Li) is also one of the most common surnames on the planet, with at least 100 million people answering to that name, principally in China. Song Nai Rhee, a former dean of Northwest Christian University, wrote in the Register-Guard newspaper of Oregon, that the Kims and the Lees were powerful families in ancient and medieval South Korea. “One of Korea’s early kingdoms, Shilla (9 B.C. to 935 A.D.) was founded and ruled by a Kim clan,” he said. “In the course of nearly 1,000 years, the Kim clan multiplied as the ruling aristocracy, branching into a multitude of powerful sub-clans, like a giant tree with many roots, spreading throughout the land. The same process helped the Lees become a dominant surname in Korea.”
However, despite the huge proliferation of Kims and Lees in Korea, people carrying this surname are not necessarily related genetically, since they are divided by hundreds of bon-gwan (regional clans) -- for example, the "Kyongju Kim" clan and the "Kimhae Kim" clan. Still, intriguingly, Korean laws long banned men and women with the same surname from marrying each other – though this prohibition no longer exists. “In practice, people with the same surname and bon-gwan do not marry each other,” Sung-Yoon Lee noted.
Professor Park of Penn noted, however, that in North Korea the taboo against marrying someone with the same name and same ancestral homeland means little since the Communist regime has discourages whatever practices and customs it deems "feudal." Also, most North Koreans have lost the knowledge of their ancestral seat- anyway.
Further complicating things, Korean women are not compelled to take their husband’s surnames upon marriage, although any children produced do automatically inherit the father’s name. Sung-Yoon Lee posits, however, that this does not imply Korean women enjoy greater rights than their counterparts in the West, where wives typically adopt their husbands' surnames. “Once a Korean woman is married, and especially after she gives birth, she would be known by both men and women as 'Mrs. Kim' (after her husband, Mr. Kim) or 'so-and-so's mother,'” he said. “In other words, her 'identity' and even raison d'etre transition into fulfilling the traditional role of the nurturing wife or mother.” At any rate, Kims and Lees dominate the country's phone books.
Song Nai Rhee emphasized that surnames (or more appropriately, clan groups within a surname) are not taken lightly in Korea -- indeed, they play an important role in modern business and politics. “Clan identities have played a crucial socio-economic and political role,” he said. “They have enhanced cooperation and mutual assistance among clan members through clan solidarity… A person running for a political office, for example, could count on the support of his or her clan associations.” Interestingly, according to the South Korean government, among foreign nationals (that is, people from China, Vietnam, Mongolia, the Philippines, etc.) who in recent years have become naturalized Korean citizens, Kim, Lee, Park and Choi were the most popular names that they adopted as their own. “So, presumptions of prestige still resonate in contemporary Korea,” Sung-Yoon Lee commented.
So, you might wonder, what happens when someone (Korean or foreigner) finds himself in a Korean corporation or government assembly? How would the various Lees and Kims be distinguished from one another? Sung-Yoon Lee explains that since most Korean names have only three syllables (some have just two, a surname and a first name), addressing one by his/her full name and his/her title is not nearly as cumbersome as saying "President Barack Obama," for example.
“In the Seoul parliament, you would address each assemblyman by his full name plus the honorific 'Assemblyman,'" he said. “If you have a small group of people where each has a different last name and there is no ambiguity, you would omit the first name and just say 'Assemblyman Kim.'”
Sung-Yoon Lee adds that in many ways South Korea remains a class-conscious Confucian society, in spite of the leveling effects of democracy and capitalism and the rise of internationally famous Korean athletes and entertainers. Indeed, for some of these Kims and Parks, “their surnames still carry the prestige of the purported upper-class bloodlines."
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.