Why do so many Koreans have the same last names?
We are all very familiar with Korean surnames, such as Kim, Lee, Park, and Choi. To outsiders, it seems that an overwhelming number of Koreans have the same last name, and the reality is, they do. According to The Economist, one in five Koreans have the last name Kim. So how does 20% of a demographic get the same last name?
In South Korea, the three surnames Kim, Lee and Park make up over half the entire population of a little over 50 million people. So how did this come to be? Just like anywhere else, there is a historic reason why so many Koreans have the same last name. Surnames came to Korea not so long ago. During the earlier part of the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1910, only the nobility were given surnames. But it's how those who were selected to have last names got those names that's affected what we see today. Before the year 1000, King Wang Geon, founder of the Goryeo Dynasty, decided to let certain subjects get surnames, so he could identify who was loyal to the court. The ones who were considered were all from elite families, and even they had to take civil examinations to receive a surname. Once they were given a name, they were allowed to register it, and included in a genealogical book.
As time passed, merchants were allowed to take the civil exams and apply for a surname as well. After a while, people with money could buy themselves an opportunity to get a surname, by straight-up buying a genealogy book from an elite family and taking that name as their own. By the late 1700s, people starting creating their own family records. Buying a noble name became something people just did. And since Kim, Lee and Park were all royal names, commoners adapted these names for themselves. Finally, in 1894, it became legal for anyone to adopt a last name, and once again, the popular noble names of the past were what people wanted to be called. Who doesn't want a name connected to royalty?
Below is a pie graph that shows you just how many people in Korea have certain names. As you can seem there are almost 10 million Kims. Good thing everyone has different given names!
Blue - Kim
Green - Lee
Orange - Park
Red - Choi
Purple - Jung
Gray - Other