Fletcher in the News

Professor Lee on Why Koreans Have So Few Surnames

Sung-Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Kim, Park And Lee: Why Do Koreans Have So Few Surnames?

The current president of South Korea is named Park Geun-hye (Park being her surname). Her predecessor in that office was named Lee Myung-bak; before him, for most of the 1990s, South Korea was ruled by men named Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam. In the neighboring dictatorship of North Korea, of course, we have witnessed a sixty-year family dynasty featuring leaders named Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Il-sung. Outside of the realm of politics, some of the most famous Koreans in the world include actor/model Kim Soo-hyun, Olympic swimmer Park Tae-hwan, figure skater Kim Yu-na, and, of course, Gangnam-style singer/entertainer Psy (real name: Park Jae-sang). In addition, Korea’s iconic Samsung Electronics corporation was founded by Lee Byung-chul and now headed by a man named Lee Kun-hee…

…Sung-Yoon Lee, assistant professor of Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston, told IB Times that during the late Silla period of Korean history (coinciding with the 9th and 10th centuries of the Christian era), the practice of adopting Chinese character-surnames among the Korean nobility became popular.

“’Kim’ and ‘Park’ were the [principal] royal names from this period,” he said. “Choi came a bit later. And Lee was the [founder of the] dynasty of the Chosun Kingdom [which lasted from 1392-1910], the longest administrative dynasty in [world] history.”

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