It does seem like almost every other person you meet in Korea has the family name “Kim.” When I first got there and had trouble learning people’s names, I was relieved when their family name was “Kim” because I could just remember to call them “Mr. Kim” or “Miss” or “Mrs. Kim.” It made life a bit easier for a foreigner. Kim is an extremely common family name in Korea. For some of the family names, they are lucky, and anyone with their family name, they know are related to them. It helps because the women don’t take their husband’s last name when they get married. You always have the family name you are given at birth in Korea, your father’s name, and usually, all the people with the same last name are related. However, this is not true about the family name “Kim” and a few others.
From what I understand, there are several Kim families in Korea. I think I heard somewhere that originally, in the very beginning, there were three Kim families. One of them was a royal family, and the other two were farmer’s families, or something like that. The people named Kim know not to claim people they don’t know as family because there are so many Kim families.
The Park, the Han, the Lim, and the Lee families are the same, but not quite as bad. If someone isn’t named Kim in Korea, it is very likely they are named Park, Han, or Lee. There is more than one family with those names too. There are other family names, but Koreans know if their family is unique or not. The Kim families, the Park families, the Han families, the Lim families, and the Lee families are not unique families. I know a few other family names. I heard the Jo family originally all came from North Korea into Seoul several generations ago before the Korean war. The Om family is an extremely unique family. Very few people in Korea have the family name of Om. They were sent several generations ago from the Chinese emperor to the Korean emperor to teach the Chinese characters in the court of the emperor, and the family just stayed. One of the last queens of Korea is from the Om family. Any time someone named Om meets another, they know they are related. The Om family has become Korean now, but they all know about their Chinese roots. I don’t know the origin of all the families, just a few. The Han family is not from China even though there was a Han dynasty in China. “Han” is actually the name in Korean of the Korean people: “Han gook,” and “gook” means “country.”
I hope this helps you understand the Korean family names a bit better. Don’t forget the name “Kim” because if you go to Korea, it will make your life much easier. Every other person you meet will be named “Kim,” but they are not related. The others you will meet, most of them will be Park, Lee, Lim, and Han. If you get basic names down to begin with, it is easier to learn the others. Many foreigners don’t try to learn the Korean names, but go with the nick name. However, I began with their family names, and just called them “Mr., Mrs. or Miss,” and then with time, it was easier to learn their given names to go with their family names because when they talk to one another, they use their whole name, their family name and both of their given names. All you have to do is listen and take a mental note, and the names will eventually stick when your brain gets used to hearing them. It is helpful to learn their given names because the all have meaning as do their family names. When you learn their names, you are learning vocabulary words. By the way, “Kim,” also pronounced “G-im,” means “seaweed.”