Korean Last Names, Naming Traditions, and Meanings

7 August 2023
by Ancestry® Team

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-gwan. Bon-gwan is using the family name and ancestor’s birthplace to distinguish one family clan with the same last name from another. 

Korean families 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 where your family’s ancestors lived, 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 Koreans

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. 

Chae Myung Shin Family, 1960, Wikimedia Commons
Chae Myung Shin Family, 1960, Wikimedia Commons

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:

  1. Kim
  2. Lee 
  3. Park
  4. Choi 
  5. Jung or Jeong
  6. Kang 
  7. Cho (or Jo)
  8. Yun (or Yoon)
  9. Jang 
  10. 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 later 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.
Mary Paik Lee Family,1926, Wikimedia Commons
Mary Paik Lee Family,1926, Wikimedia Commons

Rare or Uncommon Korean Last Names 

These are 10 of therarest Korean last names, with each name belonging to fewer than 150 people:

  1. So Bong (소봉)
  2. Jeo (저)
  3. Sam (샘)
  4. Gang Jeon (전강) 
  5. Eo Geum (어금)
  6. Jang Gok (장곡)
  7. Chon (촌), which is a very rare alternative spelling of Cheon (천)
  8. Gae (개)
  9. Jeup (즙)
  10. Hak (학)

Korean Last Names and Meanings

The meanings behind Korean last names are often chosen specifically to bestow good fortune on a person from birth. For this reason, many Korean last names and meanings reflect positive attributes. 

  • Kim: The word Kim in Korean translates to “gold” in English. This is a suitable name for royalty. 
  • Lee: The name Lee or Yi means “plum” or “plum tree.”
  • Park: The surname Park comes from the Korean word Bak and means “gourd.”
  • Choi: Choi is a name with a meaning inspired by nature that translates to “peak” or “mountain.”
  • Jung or Jeong: Jung was often adopted by a family as a surname to distinguish between a father and son who had the same first name because the word Jung means “young.”
  • Kang: Kang means “ginger” in English. 
  • Cho (or Jo): The name Cho can be translated to mean “second,” beginning,” or “candle.”
  • Yun (or Yoon): This Korean last name means “governor.” 
  • Jang: The name Jang means “archer.”
  • Lim (or Im): Lim means “forest,” “woods,” or “trees.”
  • Cheong: The surname Cheong means “gentle.”
  • Min: Min is a Korean family name meaning “smart” or “clever.” It is also sometimes given as a personal name. 

Begin Tracing Your Heritage Today 

Tracing Korean surnames and meanings can help you discover which clans your family is descended from, where your ancestors resided, and which royal dynasties you’re connected to. Understanding your origins is a beautiful way to honor your family’s past and pass down traditions through generations. 

To explore your Korean heritage or locate your ancestors, start a free trial of Ancestry® today.