Why So Many Koreans Have the Last Name “Kim”
The history behind the most popular last name in Korea
If you are a Korean like myself, chances are your surname is one of Kim (김), Lee (이), Park (박), or Choi (최). In fact, the top 4 most popular last names in South Korea made up for almost half (49.3) of the entire population in 2015; the most popular being Kim with 21.5%. In contrast, Smith, the most popular surname in the States only make up for 1%. This is quite unusual as a culture or a nation to have such great portion of the population concentrated on few surnames. Why is it that such few surnames exist in Korea?
Kim has two roots; one being of the royal family of Silla dynasty (57BC — 935AD) and the other being of the royal family of Gaya confederacy (42AD-562AD). When the two countries merged, the family name of Kim became one of the most populous names. Park comes from the founder of Silla dynasty, Park Hyeokgeose who, according to the founding legend, was hatched out of an egg.
The Korean peninsula had a long period of three kingdoms: Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. After centuries of conflict, Silla united the peninsula in 668 until it was overtaken by a new dynasty named Goryeo (918–1392). The Kim families of Silla were absorbed into the monarchy and given noble status by the ruling Wang family.
Goryeo dynasty was succeeded by Joseon (1392–1897), when Yi (Lee) Seonggye, a general of Goryeo, overthrew the Wang family. Yi Seonggye almost exterminated the Wang family once he became king. This was the only incident in Korean history where a royal family of the predeceasing dynasty did not integrate into the succeeding monarchy.
Joseon lasted until 1897 (1910 under a different name), when the country was annexed by Japan. During the 500 year rule, the Yi (Lee) family became one of the most populous families in the country. Lee is still the second most populous surname in South Korea, accounting for 15% of the population.
Other popular names like Choi and Jeong (정) were names of noble families with rich history. This was possible because many royal and noble families of the predeceasing dynasty integrated into the succeeding dynasty. This allowed for family sizes to grow from from Silla dynasty to Joseon, which was a 2000 year period.
Slave Name Reform
During the Joseon dynasty, slaves made up for 50–60% of the population at its peak. Only noblemen had family names, while slaves were not given legal names — meaning more than half of the country was nameless. The status of slaves drastically shifted in the 17th century after two wars against Japan and the Qing dynasty of China.
As two consecutive wars deprived Joseon of tax money, the monarchy allowed for slaves to purchase names and elevate their social status. This was to bring revenue through the selling of royal and noble names and to gain more taxpayers as slaves could not pay taxes.
Most slaves chose to buy popular and powerful family names to solidify their new status. Names like 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 a lot of slaves saw an increase in family size.
Japanese Colonial Rule
In 1910, Joseon was annexed by Japan, ending the 513-year rule by the Yi (Lee) family. By 1894 Joseon had abolished class system and in 1904, adopted a census system. To effectively colonize the peninsula, Japan required every adult to report a surname to the colonial government. The already small population of slaves and common folks chose popular names such as Kim, Lee, Park, and Choi.
The unique history of Korea allowed for the lack of diversity in surnames. The long history of successions of dynasties solidified the status of royal and noble families. Slaves later bought their rights to become noblemen by purchasing the right to own a popular family name, and the Japanese colonial rule finalized the current state of concentration on a few popular surnames.