Why do so many Koreans have the last name of Kim? What's a "high" Kim and what's a "low" Kim?
Walter H. Sakai
Professor of Biology, Santa Monica College
Dear Professor Sakai,
There really are a lot of Korean Kims. Kim is the most common last name in Korea, making up roughly 20 percent of the population -- which makes it about 10 million Kims. According to Los Angeles Times article that spoke about racial diversity in Los Angeles County, Lopez and Kim were two examples of ethnic last names that were more common than Smith. Other very common last names are Lee (15 percent) and Park (10 percent). Kim, Lee, and Park put together is about 45 percent of the Korean population.
Why so many Kims? Kim was the last name for the oldest and longest dynasty of Korea, namely Silla Dynasty, born in 57 BC and perished in 935 AD. In the early period, Silla had three rotating last names for kings -- Park clan was the one that started the Dynasty, then Seok clan, then Kim clan. Over time, Kim clan became the most powerful, and eventually all Silla kings were from the Kim clan for over 700 years. Since Kims were royalties and noblemen, their population was bound to become large.
There is not exactly a "high" or "low" Kim, but Kims (just like all other last names in Korea) are divided into a number of clans and subclans. The largest Kim clan is Gimhae Kims, which has more than 4 million members. There are certain last names that used to only belong to lower-class people (e.g. Cheon, Bang, Ji, Chu, Ma, Gol, Pih). But the significance of family lineage has greatly diminished in the modern era; frankly, no one but old coots care about last names in Korea anymore.
Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.