No fewer than six South Korean players have the same surname: Kim.
South Korea is one of the teams at the 2002 Qatar World Cup where one of the great curiosities of the tournament can be seen. No fewer than four of the team’s starting defenders and even the goalkeeper have the same surname: Kim. Kim Seung-Gyu (goalkeeper), Kim Moon-Hwan, Kim Min-Jae, Kim Young-Gwon and Kim Jin-Su in the back line. There is another player whose last name is Kim: Kim Tae-Hwan. They are not brothers or members of the same family, but why is this surname repeated in the South Korean team?
To answer the question we need to take a trip down history lane. Koreans use only about 250 surnames. Of these, Kim, Lee and Park are the most common in the country. Although they are very common, most of the people named are not related.
In fact, 21% of Koreans bear the surname Kim. That is, one in five Koreans have the same surname. And 54% of the population has one of the three most common names (Kim, Lee and Park). In fact, there’s even a Korean proverb related to this statistic: “In Korea, if you throw a rock off a mountain, it’s sure to hit someone with the surname Lee, Kim or Park.”
One thing that all human beings around the world have in common is the notion of a name. This seemingly insignificant word, called ireum or seongmyeong in Korean, which gives us a lifelong identity, however, has a strong cultural and genealogical component, as it can indicate the country we come from and our lineage, sometimes our gender and sometimes even our age, if it fits the fashion of the years we were born.
The history of names in Korea dates back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC – 668 AD), when the earliest records were found. At that time, one could find purely Korean names such as Sadaham, Gaesomun or Suro, which are a far cry from the three classical syllables with which we now inevitably associate them. Their current form actually has its origins in the Chinese influence the country experienced when it allied itself with the famous Tang dynasty, which took place from the unified Silla era in the second half of the 7th century. By the time of the Goryeo reign (918-1392), the names took on their present configuration.
This onomastic system consists of three distinct syllables corresponding to three Chinese characters, called hanja in Korean. Thus, while the first syllable corresponds to the family name, the second syllable designates the generation name: a character shared by members of the same generation, such as siblings or cousins. Finally, the third syllable is the personal name, which is chosen specifically for the person who will bear it. To accomplish this task, many parents used – and still use – professionals for name selection.
Today’s surnames have their origins in the descent system used in earlier historical periods. Each clan is associated with a particular place. In most cases, this clan originates from a common patrilineal ancestor.
Each surname is divided into one or more clans (bon-gwan), identified by the clan’s town of origin. For example, the most numerous clan is Gimhae Kim, i.e. the Kim clan in the town of Gimhae. According to tradition, each clan publishes a comprehensive genealogy (jokbo) every 30 years.
Korean surnames have been influenced by Chinese onomastics and almost all of them are formed from a hanja and therefore a single syllable. The five most common surnames are borne by more than half of the Korean population, about 20 million people. Although both Koreas use official Korean romanization systems for geographical and other names, personal names are generally romanized according to personal preference, e.g. a surname such as “Li” can be found as “Lee” (due to English influence), “I”, “Yi”, “Rhi”, “Rhee” (again according to Anglo-Saxon spelling) and “Rhie”.