Friday, May 04, 2007

Swing a dead cat to hit a Kim

Dear Korean,

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


  1. Hey, Korean. I really like this weblog. However, I have to point out: The plural of "Kim" is "Kims," not "Kim's." The apostrophe would only apply when Kim was used in the possessive, like "Kim's Dry Cleaners."

  2. I'd heard a story some time ago as an addendum to what you mention.

    Basically, at some point there was a powerful clan with a name something like "wang" (?) that spelled it's name with the hanja for "king" (three horizontal lines with a vertical line down the middle). When they were defeated, in order to avoid persecution, many people went into their family registries and changed their names to Kim (the hanja being similiar but with 4 more strokes added).

    Probably this was just a Korean linguistics joke.

  3. that's what happens when the Korean writes instead of studying for his final -- a fob moment. Somehow the Korean thought it was like 1930's, which is in fact not a plural.

    Ax2groin, that story is true, although you only have it half right. Wang was the last name for Goryeo Dynasty, but when Joseon Dynasty began with the last name "Lee", the Wangs changed the Chinese characters of their last names in order to avoid persecution. All the people with the last name Jeon in Korea were previously Wangs, since "jeon" character can be made with simply adding two more strokes on "wang".

    1. Actually, "1930's" is incorrect too. It should be "1930s". The only time you should use an apostrophe to pluralize (acording to the Chicago Manual of Style) is single letters. Sorry I'm 5 years too late...

  4. Hellz yeah Gimhae Kims (my mom is a Gimhae Kim, from the Sam-hyun pah)...even though my dad is (and therefore technically I am) a Gyeongju Lee (ik-jae-gong pah)!

  5. I've heard the Wang-Jeon connection story before, but then someone told me it's a myth. According to here, the 전(全) name dates back to the Paekje kingdom.

  6. "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"

    In reading these other comments, and in knowing that I'm a Jeonju Lee, I'd beg to differ.


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