Korean Last Names, Naming Traditions, And Meanings

The Ancestry Team posted an article about Korean surnames. North Korea and South Korea share a border, but they couldn’t be more different. Referred to as a “hermit kingdom”, North Korea is an isolated country known for its authoritarian government. In contrast, South Korea is heavily influenced by Western culture, making it one of the largest music and film markets in the world.

Despite these differences, the residents of North Korea and South Korea share something important: traditional Korean surnames. Each name consists of a given name and a family name. These names correspond to the first and last names used in the West, with one key difference: the family name comes first. A person’s family name also provides important clues about their lineage.

Interestingly, while there are only 288 family names in Korea, these names can be accurately traced back to 36,744 different clans thanks to the concept of Bon-qwan. Bon-qwan is using the family name and an ancestor’s birthplace to distinguish one family clan with the same last name from another.

Korean names often have an indispensable tool in their family history kit. Jokpo is a family tree book that traces many generations of the male lines for one family name. Knowing your Korean family name and following the paternal lineage can help you identify what they did for a living, and to which clan they belonged. Understanding your surname and its origins is the first step in more deeply identifying with your family history.

Naming Traditions of Korea 

The Korean family names that are popular today began to appear in 1904 after a census mandated the registration of a surname for all Korean residents. Before the Korean class system was abolished in 1894, family names were reserved only for royalty and those with a high-ranking social status.

After this time, all citizens were allowed to adopt a family name, and the names that remain prevalent today were popular choices. Today, knowing a person’s family name in Korea provides information about which family they belong to and their patriarchal lineage. This is because the family name passes to children from the father’s side in modern Korean culture.

Common Korean Family Names

The most common Korean family names are so widely used in South Korea today that the top three South Korean last names alone are used by almost half of the country’s population.

In Korea, surnames have little diversity because when the class system was abolished, many people simply took on the surname of the affluent or royal family they worked for. 

Today, the 10 most popular Korean last names are: Kim, Lee, Park, Choi, Jung or Jeong, Kang, Cho (or Jo), Yun (or Yoon), Jang, Lim (or Im).

Each of these names has a unique historical background and origin that are significant to the family’s history. Many popular Korean last names can be traced back to one or two clans throughout history. Some of the most notable names dating back to high-ranking families are:

Kim. Kim is a prominent Korean surname with royal prestige attached to it. This is because, in Korean history, the Kim family rose to power and ruled the Silla Dynasty for over 500 years.

Lee. Lee, also spelled I or Yi sometimes, is a surname that can be traced back to the House of Yi (of the Joseon Dynasty). The family alter became the imperial family of the Korean Empire. The House of Yi are descendants of Yi Seong-gye, founder of the Joseon Dynasty.

Park. The Korean last name Park comes from the House of Park in the Silla Dynasty. All Koreans with the surname Park can try tracing their roots back to Park clans who are ancestors of the first king of the Silla Dynasty.

Choi. The name Choi is linked back to the Gyeongju Choi clan, potentially founded by a Silla scholar.

Cho. Cho or Jo is a royal family name that has become common as a surname in Korea. People with the Korean family name Cho or Jo may have royal ancestors, or their relatives may have worked for a royal family and adopted the surname after the abolition of the class system.

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