Hong Gil-dong, a generic Korean name used similarly to "John Doe" in English. From the top, the name is written in Hangul, then Hanja, then in Latin text using the Revised Romanization system.
  Surname (; Hong)
  Given name (길동; Gil-dong)

A Korean name in the modern era typically consists of a surname followed by a given name, with no middle names. A number of Korean terms for names exist. For full names, seongmyeong (Korean성명; Hanja姓名), seongham (성함; 姓銜), or ireum (이름) are commonly used. When a Korean name is written in Hangul, there is no space between the surname and the given name.[1]

Most Korean surnames consist of a single syllable, although multisyllabic surnames exist (e.g. Namgung). Upon marriage, both partners keep their full names, but children inherit the father's surname unless otherwise specified during the marriage registration process. Koreans have been historically grouped into Korean clans. Each clan is identified by a bongwan (본관; birthplace of the clan's founder) and the founder of the clan (with descendency determined patrilineally). For example, the Jeonju Yi clan comes from Jeonju and descends from Yi Han [ko].[2] In 2000, a census showed that there were a total of 286 surnames and 4,179 clans.[3] However, the three most common surnames (Kim, Lee, and Park) are shared by nearly half of South Koreans.

Given names usually have two syllables, although names with one, three, or more syllables also exist. Generation names (where names for a generation of a family are related in some way, usually by sharing a character) are also traditional, although now increasingly less common. In North Korea, the generational syllable is shared only among siblings, but in the South, it is shared by all members of the same generation. The use of given names is guided by a strict system of honorifics; it can be rude to refer to a stranger or person of higher social status by their given name. Perceived gender in names is less consistent than in Western names.

Naming practices have changed over time. Surnames were once exclusively used by royalty and nobility, but eventually became acceptable for lower class usage. Even until 1910, more than half of Koreans did not have a surname. While now significantly less common, Confucian and cultural traditions dictate systems of naming taboos, childhood names, courtesy names, art names, and posthumous names. Until the invention of the Korean alphabet Hangul in the 15th century, most Korean names were written using Chinese characters (Hanja). While many names can still be written entirely in Hanja, some are now exclusively written in Hangul (e.g. Da-som). In 2015, 7.7% of people had Hangul-only names. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, beginning in 1939, Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names and naming practices. They were allowed to return to using Korean names following the 1945 liberation of Korea.


Diagram showing terminology for names, with Latin text written using Revised Romanization

A number of terms exist for Korean names. For the full name, seongmyeong (성명; 姓名) is commonly used.[4] This is a compound word; seong (; ) refers to the surname,[5] and myeong (; ) to the given name.[6] The native Korean term ireum (이름) can be used to refer to either the full name or the given name.[7]

A more formal term for the full name is seongham (성함; 姓銜).[8][4] This term is relatively commonly used during transactions or in official settings. It is commonly said in the phrase "성함이 어떻게 되세요?"; lit. "What is your name?".[9]

Over half of South Koreans have the following five surnames (English spelling variations grouped together):


See also: List of Korean surnames

Further information: Korean clans and Korean clans of foreign origin

The five most common surnames[10]
Korean Hanja Revised MR Common spellings
Gim Kim Kim, Gim
I Ri (N)
I (S)
Lee, Rhee, Yi
Bak Pak Park, Pak, Bak
Choe Ch'oe Choi, Choe, Chue
Jeong Chŏng Jung, Chung, Jeong, Cheong

Fewer than 300 (approximately 280)[11] Korean surnames were in use in 2000, and the three most common (Kim, Lee, and Park) account for nearly half of the population. For various reasons,[clarification needed] the number of Korean surnames has been increasing over time.[11][12]

Each Korean person belongs to a Korean clan. Each clan can be identified by a surname from a patrilineal ancestor and a place of origin (본관; bongwan). For example, the most populous clan is the Gimhae Kim clan: they descend from Kim Suro and identify the city of Gimhae as their origin. Clan membership is determined. Clans are further subdivided into various pa (; ), or branches stemming from a more recent common ancestor, so that a full identification of a person's surname would be clan-surname-branch.[citation needed] Until 2005, marrying other members of one's clan was illegal, although this restriction was declared unconstitutional and lifted.[13]

Traditionally, Korean women keep their surnames after their marriage, but their children take the father's surname. In the premodern, patriarchal Korean society, people were extremely conscious of familial values and their own family identities. Korean women keep their surnames after marriage based on traditional reasoning that it is inherited from their parents and ancestors, and cannot be changed. According to traditions, each clan publishes a comprehensive genealogy book (족보; 族譜; jokbo) every 30 years.[14]

Around a dozen two-syllable surnames are used, all of which rank after the 100 most common surnames. The five most common surnames, which together make up over half of the Korean population, are used by over 20 million people in South Korea.[10]

After the 2015 census, it was revealed that foreign-origin surnames were becoming more common in South Korea, due to naturalised citizens transcribing their surnames in Hangul. Between 2000 and 2015, more than 4,800 new surnames were registered. During the census, a total of 5,582 distinct surnames were collected, 73% of which do not have corresponding Hanja characters. It was also revealed that despite the surge in the number of surnames, the ratio of top 10 surnames had not changed. 44.6% of South Koreans are still named Kim, Lee or Park, while the rest of the top 10 are made up of Choi, Jeong, Kang, Jo, Yoon, Jang and Lim.[15]

Given names

See also: List of Korean given names

Traditionally, given names are partly determined by generation names, a custom originating in China. One of the two characters in a given name is unique to the individual, while the other is shared by all people in a family generation. In both North and South Koreas, generational names are usually no longer shared by cousins, but are still commonly shared by siblings.[16][17]

Given names are typically composed of Hanja, or Chinese characters. In North Korea, the Hanja are no longer used to write the names, but the meanings are still understood; for example, the syllable cheol () in boys' names is usually perceived as , which means "iron".[16]

In South Korea, Article 37 of the Regulations on Registration of Family Relations (가족관계의 등록 등에 관한 규칙) requires that the Hanja in personal names be taken from a restricted list. Unapproved Hanja must be represented by Hangul in the family relations register (가족관계등록부). In March 1991, the Supreme Court of Korea published the Table of Hanja for Use in Personal Names (인명용 한자표; 人名用漢字表)[a] which allowed a total of 2,854 Hanja in new South Korean given names (as well as 61 variant forms), and put it into effect starting April 1 of the same year.[18] The list was expanded several times; the latest update was in 2022. Currently, more than 8,000 Hanja are permitted in South Korean names (including the set of basic Hanja), in addition to a small number of variant forms.[19] The use of an official list is similar to Japan's use of the jinmeiyō kanji (although the characters do not entirely coincide).

The Table of Hanja for Use in Personal Names merely shows what characters are currently allowed to be registered. It cannot always be used to determine someone's existing Hanja name because of the following reasons:

While the traditional practice is still largely followed, since the late 1970s, some parents have given their children names that are native Korean words, usually of two syllables. Given names of this sort include Ha-neul (하늘; lit. heaven/sky), Da-som (다솜; lit. love) and Bit-na (빛나; lit. to shine). Between 2008 and 2015, the proportion of such names among South Korean newborns rose from 3.5% to 7.7%.[20] Despite this trend away from traditional practice, people's names are still recorded in both Hangul and Hanja (if available) on official documents, in family genealogies, and so on.

Unless a given name contains a syllable that does not have any corresponding Hanja at all (e.g. (bit)), there is no guarantee that a name which may look like a native Korean name never has Hanja. A certain name written in Hangul can be a native Korean name, or a Sino-Korean name, or even both. For example, Bo-ram (보람) can not only be a native Korean name,[21] but can also be a Sino-Korean name (e.g. 寶濫).[22] In some cases, parents intend a dual meaning: both the meaning from a native Korean word and the meaning from Hanja.

Originally, there was no legal limitation on the length of names in South Korea. As a result, some people registered extremely long given names, such as the 16-syllable Haneul­byeolnim­gureum­haetnim­boda­sarang­seureouri (하늘별님구름햇님보다사랑스러우리; roughly, "more beloved than the sky, stars, clouds, and the sun"). However, beginning in 1993, new regulations required that the given name be five syllables or shorter.[23]

A family relations certificate (가족관계증명서) of an individual lists the person concerned, the person's parents, spouse, and children. If there is more than one person with the same name in a family relations certificate, it is difficult to identify the person. Therefore, an individual is not allowed to have the same name as someone appearing in one's parent's family relations certificate – in other words, a child cannot have the same name as one's parents and grandparents.[24]


Forms of address

See also: Korean honorifics

The usage of names is governed by strict norms in traditional Korean society. It is generally considered rude to address people by their given names in Korean culture. This is particularly the case when dealing with adults or one's elders.[25] It is acceptable to call someone by his or her given name if he or she is the same age as the speaker. However, it is considered rude to use someone's given name if that person's age is a year older than the speaker. This is often a source of pragmatic difficulty for learners of Korean as a foreign language, and for Korean learners of Western languages.

A variety of replacements are used for the actual name of the person. It is acceptable among adults of similar status to address the other by their full name, with the suffix ssi (; ) added. However, it is inappropriate to address someone by the surname alone, even with such a suffix.[26] Whenever the person has an official rank, it is typical to address him or her by the name of that rank (such as "Manager"), often with the honorific nim () added. In such cases, the full name of the person may be appended, although this can also imply the speaker is of higher status.[26]

Among children and close friends, it is common to use a person's birth name.

Traditional nicknames

Among the common people, who have suffered from high child mortality, children were often given childhood names (아명; 兒名; amyeong), to wish them long lives by avoiding notice from the messenger of death.[27] These have become less common.[28]

After marriage, women usually lost their amyeong, and were called by a taekho (택호; 宅號), referring to their town of origin.[27]

In addition, teknonymy, or referring to parents by their children's names, is a common practice. It is most commonly used in referring to a mother by the name of her eldest child, as in "Cheolsu's mom" (철수 엄마). However, it can be extended to either parent and any child, depending upon the context.[29]


Korean given names' correlation to gender is complex and, by comparison to European languages, less consistent.[30] Certain Sino-Korean syllables carry masculine connotations, others feminine, and others unisex. These connotations may vary depending on whether the character is used as the first or second character in the given name. A dollimja generational marker, once confined to male descendants but now sometimes used for women as well, may further complicate gender identification. Native Korean given names show similar variation.

A further complication in Korean text is that the singular pronoun used to identify individuals has no gender. This means that automated translation often misidentifies or fails to identify an individual's gender in Korean text and thus presents stilted or incorrect English output. (Conversely, English source text is similarly missing information about social status and age critical to smooth Korean-language rendering.)[31]

Children traditionally take their father's surname.[32] Under South Korean Civil Law effective January 1, 2008, though, children may be legally given the last name of either parent or even that of a step-parent.[33]

Romanization and pronunciation

See also: Romanization of Korean

Many modern Koreans romanize their names in an ad hoc manner that often attempts to approximate conventions in English orthography. This produces many Latin-spelling variations for a single name. For example, the surname (李) is variously romanized as Lee, Yi, I, or Rhee.

Some Koreans avoid certain spellings because of their similarity to English words with negative connotations. For example, "Gang", "Bang", "Sin", and "Gun".[34]

Although the current official romanization system in South Korea is the Revised Romanization of Korean, South Korean nationals are not required to follow this when they apply for their passports; people are allowed to register their romanized names freely as long as the romanized name can be pronounced like the Hangul name.[35] Even a single surname within a single family can be romanized differently on passports. For example, within a single family, the father's surname can be "Shim" while his son's can be "Sim".[36]

According to a 2007 examination of 63,000 passports, the most common romanizations for various common surnames were:[37]

Spelling 1 Spelling 2 Spelling 3
Kim (99.3%) Gim (0.6%) Ghim (0.01%)
Lee (98.5%) Yi (1%) Rhee (0.2%)
Park (95.9%) Bak (1.8%) Pak (1.7%)
Choi (93.1%) Choe (6.5%) Choy (0.09%)
Jung (48.6%) Jeong (37%) Chung (9.2%)

In English-speaking nations, the three most common surnames are often written and pronounced as Kim (), Lee/Ri (이/리), and Park ().

In romanized Korean names, a two-syllable given name is spelled as a joined word (Gildong), or separated by a hyphen (Gil-dong) or a space (Gil Dong); in other words, Gildong, Gil-dong, and Gil Dong are all the same given name. Even with a space, Gil Dong is still a single first name, not first and middle names. South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government agency issuing passports to its nationals, formally advised its nationals not to put a space in their given names because having a space in a given name can be misunderstood as having first and middle names;[41] the Ministry also gives a chance to remove the space when one already has a space in one's given name.[42]

It is not always possible to unambiguously determine the original Hangul name from a romanized Korean name. For example, the jung in Kim Dae-jung and in Youn Yuh-jung is actually different in Hangul ( and respectively).[b]

Eom Ik-sang [ko], a South Korean professor of the Chinese language and literature at Hanyang University, said the following with regard to the romanizations of Korean personal names and the adoption of South Korea's official romanization system in other countries:[43][c]

In the case of the romanization of Chinese, the Hanyu Pinyin system established by the Chinese government in 1958 is being used worldwide today, displacing the Wade–Giles system that had been used in the West for nearly a hundred years. It is now possible to search Chinese personal names and book titles using Hanyu Pinyin in overseas libraries including the U.S. Library of Congress. However, is it fair to compare the country in which more than 1.3 billion people have been uniformly following [a single system] for more than 50 years to the country in which almost all citizens and presidents alike have been romanizing their names freely, asserting individual freedom? Korea is a place where one's home address as well as the surname of each family member [within a single family] can be romanized differently. Why would other countries trust and use [South Korea's official romanization] system that not only has been frequently changed but also we ourselves do not even consistently follow?

Name order

Ban Ki-moon in Davos, Switzerland – the usual presentation of Korean names in English, as shown here, is to put the surname first (Ban is the surname)

In English-language publications, including newspapers, Korean names are usually written in the original order, with the surname first and the given name last. However, Koreans living and working in Western countries usually adopt the Western order, with the given name first and the surname last. The usual presentation of Korean names in English is similar to those of Chinese names and differs from those of Japanese names, which, in English publications, are usually written in a reversed order with the surname last.[44]


The use of names has evolved over time. The first recording of Korean names appeared as early as in the early Three Kingdoms period. The adoption of Chinese characters contributed to Korean names. A complex system, including courtesy names, art names, posthumous names, and childhood names, arose out of Confucian tradition. The courtesy name system in particular arose from the Classic of Rites, a core text of the Confucian canon.[45] Names have also been influenced by naming taboos, a practice that originated in China.[46]

During the Three Kingdoms period, native given names were sometimes composed of three syllables like Misaheun (미사흔) and Sadaham (사다함), which were later transcribed into Hanja (未斯欣 and 斯多含). The use of surnames was limited to kings in the beginning, but gradually spread to aristocrats and eventually to most of the population.[47]

Some recorded surnames are apparently native Korean words, such as toponyms. At that time, some characters of Korean names might have been read not by their Sino-Korean pronunciation, but by their native reading. For example, the native Korean name of Yeon Gaesomun (연개소문; 淵蓋蘇文), the first Grand Prime Minister of Goguryeo, can linguistically be reconstructed as [*älkɑsum].[48] Early Silla names are also believed to represent Old Korean vocabulary; for example, Bak Hyeokgeose, the name of the founder of Silla, was pronounced something like Bulgeonuri (弗矩內), which can be translated as "bright world".[49]

In older traditions, if the name of a baby is not chosen by the third trimester, the responsibility of choosing the name fell to the oldest son of the family. Often, this was the preferred method as the name chosen was seen as good luck.

According to the chronicle Samguk Sagi, surnames were bestowed by kings upon their supporters. For example, in 33 CE, King Yuri gave the six headmen of Saro (later Silla) the names Lee (), Bae (), Choi (), Jeong (), Son () and Seol (). However, this account is not generally credited by modern historians, who hold that Confucian-style surnames as above were more likely to have come into general use in the fifth and subsequent centuries, as the Three Kingdoms increasingly adopted the Chinese model.[50]

Only a handful of figures from the Three Kingdoms period are recorded as having borne a courtesy name, such as Seol Chong. The custom only became widespread in the Goryeo period, as Confucianism took hold among the literati.[51][d] In 1055, Goryeo established a new law limiting access to the civil service examination to those without surnames.[27]

For men of the aristocratic yangban class, a complex system of alternate names emerged by the Joseon period. On the other hand, commoners typically only had given names.[27] Surnames were originally a privilege reserved for the yangban class, but members of the middle and common classes of Joseon society frequently paid to acquire a surname from a yangban and be included into a clan; this practice became rampant by the 18th century,[52] leading to a significant growth in the yangban class but conversely diluting and weakening its social dominance.[53] For instance, in the region of Daegu, the yangban who had comprised 9.2% of Daegu's demographics in 1690 rose to 18.7% in 1729, 37.5% in 1783, and 70.3% in 1858.[54] It was not until the Gabo Reform of 1894 that members of the outcast class were allowed to adopt a surname.[55] According to a census called the minjeokbu (민적부; 民籍簿) completed in 1910, more than half of the Korean population did not have a surname at the time.[27]

For a brief period after the Mongol invasion of Korea during the Goryeo dynasty, Korean kings and aristocrats had both Mongolian and Sino-Korean names. The scions of the ruling class were sent to the Yuan court for schooling.[56] For example, King Gongmin had both the Mongolian name Bayan Temür (伯顏帖木兒) and the Sino-Korean name Wang Gi (王祺) (later renamed Wang Jeon (王顓)).[57]

Japanese colonial period

See also: Sōshi-kaimei and Korea under Japanese rule

During the period of Japanese colonial rule of Korea (1910–1945), Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese-language names.[58] Even today, it is common for Korean nationals living in Japan to use Japanese surnames as well. Also known as tsūshōmei (通称名) or tsūmei (通名), such an alternative name can be registered as a legal alias and used in many official contexts including bank accounts and health insurance.[citation needed]

In 1939, as part of Governor-General Jirō Minami's policy of cultural assimilation (同化政策, dōka seisaku), Ordinance No. 20 (commonly called the "Name Order", or sōshi-kaimei (創氏改名) in Japanese) was issued, and became law in April 1940. Although the Japanese Governor-General officially prohibited compulsion, low-level officials effectively forced Koreans to adopt Japanese-style surnames and given names. By 1944, about 84% of the population had registered Japanese surnames.[59]

Sōshi (Japanese) means the creation of a Japanese surname (shi, Korean ssi), distinct from a Korean surname or seong (Japanese sei). Japanese surnames represent the families they belong to and can be changed by marriage and other procedures, while Korean surnames represent paternal linkages and are unchangeable. Japanese policy dictated that Koreans either could register a completely new Japanese surname unrelated to their Korean surname, or have their Korean surname, in Japanese form, automatically become their Japanese name if no surname was submitted before the deadline.[60]

After the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule, the Name Restoration Order (조선 성명 복구령; 朝鮮姓名復舊令) was issued on October 23, 1946, by the United States military administration south of the 38th parallel north, enabling Koreans to restore their original Korean names if they wished.

Japanese conventions of creating given names, such as using "" (Japanese ko and Korean ja) in feminine names, is seldom seen in present-day Korea, both North and South. In the North, a campaign to eradicate such Japanese-based names was launched in the 1970s.[16] In the South, and presumably in the North as well, these names are regarded as old and unsophisticated.[61]

See also


  1. ^ Also called the Table of Additional Hanja for Use in Personal Names (인명용 추가 한자표; 人名用追加漢字表).
  2. ^ Even if the Revised Romanization of Korean (RR) were strictly applied to all names, such an ambiguity is not fully resolved. For example, given names 빛나 and 샛별 are romanized as Bitna and Saetbyeol respectively according to RR – syllable-final consonants and both become t.
  3. ^ Original: "중국어 로마자 표기법은 서구에서 100년 가까이 사용해오던 Wade-Giles법을 밀어내고 최근에는 1958년 중국정부가 제정한 한어병음방법을 전 세계적으로 사용하고 있다. 미국의회도서관은 물론 해외 도서관에서 한어병음으로 중국의 인명과 서명을 검색할 수 있게 되었다. 그러나 13억이 넘는 인구가 50년이 넘는 세월 동안 일률적으로 사용해온 경우와 성명의 표기는 개인의 자유라며 일반 국민은 물론 대통령까지 거의 모두 자유롭게 표기해온 국가와 비교가 될 수 있을까? 자기 집 영문 주소는 물론 성까지도 식구마다 다르게 표기할 수 있는 곳이 한국이다. 우리 스스로도 잘 지키지 않고, 수시로 바뀌는 표기법을 외국에서 뭘 믿고 쓰겠는가?"
  4. ^ Seol Chong's courtesy name, Chongji (총지) is reported in the Samguk Sagi, Yeoljeon 6, "Seol Chong".


  1. ^ Evason, Nina (2021). "South Korean Culture – Naming". Cultural Atlas. Archived from the original on 2023-08-11. Retrieved 2023-08-11.
  2. ^ Lee, Si-jin (2022-05-05). "Wanju beckons with beautiful nature, traditions". The Korea Herald. Archived from the original on 2023-07-22. Retrieved 2023-07-22.
  3. ^ "2000 인구주택총조사 성씨 및 본관 집계결과". 통계청 (in Korean). Statistics Korea. Retrieved 2017-10-20.[permanent dead link]
  4. ^ a b "성명". korean.dict.naver.com. Archived from the original on 2023-10-01. Retrieved 2023-08-11.
  5. ^ "성". korean.dict.naver.com. Archived from the original on 2023-10-01. Retrieved 2023-08-11.
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  7. ^ "이름". korean.dict.naver.com. Archived from the original on 2023-10-01. Retrieved 2023-08-11.
  8. ^ "How to Say "What Is Your Name" in Korean – Different ways of asking". 90 Day Korean. 2016-01-13. Archived from the original on 2023-08-11. Retrieved 2023-08-11.
  9. ^ "(493) 성함이 어떻게 되세요?" [(493) What is your name?]. The Korea Times. 2008-04-14. Archived from the original on 2023-08-11. Retrieved 2023-08-11.
  10. ^ a b Republic of Korea. National Statistical Office. Archived 2007-03-01 at the Wayback Machine The total population was 45,985,289. No comparable statistics are available from North Korea. The top 22 surnames are charted, and a rough extrapolation for both Koreas has been calculated "Sun Bin: Chinese and Korean Family Names". Archived from the original on 2016-06-28. Retrieved 2006-08-22.
  11. ^ a b Zwetsloot, Jacco (2009-08-12). "Everything you ever wanted to know about Korean surnames". HanCinema. Archived from the original on 2014-12-04.
  12. ^ U.S. Library of Congress, Traditional Family Life. Archived 2016-11-03 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Same-Surname-Same-Origin Marriage Ban case (95Hun-Ka6 on Article 809 (1) of the Civil Act); ^ THE FIRST TEN YEARS OF THE KOREAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT (PDF), Constitutional Court of Korea, p. 242 (p.256 of the PDF), archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-02-19.
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  15. ^ Kim, Da-sol (2017-01-09). "Foreign-origin family names on rise in South Korea". The Korea Herald. Archived from the original on 2017-01-09. Retrieved 2017-01-10.
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  17. ^ Harkrader, Lisa (2004). South Korea. Enslow Pub. Inc. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-7660-5181-2. Many South Korean families today are relatively small, and may not include sons, so South Korean parents have begun to choose names for their sons that do not follow the traditional requirements of generation names.
  18. ^ National Academy of the Korean Language (June 1991). "국립 국어 연구원 소식" [News from the National Academy of the Korean Language] (in Korean). New Korean Life (새국어생활). Archived from the original on 2016-03-19. Retrieved 2006-08-11.
  19. ^ "'인명용(人名用)' 한자 5761→8142자로 대폭 확대". The Chosun Ilbo (in Korean). 2014-10-20. Archived from the original on 2017-08-23. Retrieved 2017-08-23.
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