Korean Personal Names

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Understanding customs used in surnames and given names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]


Surnames[edit | edit source]

  • A Korean personal name consists of a family name followed by a given name.
  • Both of these are usually composed of hanja, which are Chinese characters in Korean pronunciation. Hanja are no longer used officially in North Korea, and their use in given names is restricted to 5,038 characters in South Korea.
  • In most cases, the family name consists of a single syllable, and the given name of two syllables.
  • When using European languages, some Koreans keep the original order, while others reverse the names to match the Western pattern.
  • In Korea, a married woman does not change her family name to her husband’s.
  • Middle names are not recognized in Korea in the Western sense, in which there is a clear differentiation from the given name. Despite this fact, entering one of the two syllables of the given name in place of middle name on non-Korean document is common, due to either the lack of understanding or just for convenience.
  • Only about 250 Korean family names are in use. Of these, Kim, Lee, and Park are the most common. However, most holders of a particular name are not closely related.
  • Current family names have their origin in the lineage system used in previous historical periods. Each clan is associated with a specific place, such as the Gimhae Kim. In most cases, such a clan traces its origin to a common patrilineal ancestor.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

  • Traditionally, given names are partly determined by generation names, a custom originating in China. Many Koreans have their given names made of a generational name syllable and an individually distinct syllable, though this practice is declining in the younger generations. The generational name syllable is shared by siblings in North Korea, and by all members of the same generation of an extended family in South Korea. The generation name and personal name may appear in either order within a name, depending on the family’s preference:e.g. PAK Jang Su’s brother may be called PAK Tae Su. Su is the generation name.[1]
  • 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; thus, for example, the syllable cheol (철, 鐵) is used in boys' names and means "iron".
  • In South Korea, section 37 of the Family Registry Law requires that the hanja in personal names be taken from a restricted list.
  • 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. Popular given names of this sort include Haneul (하늘; "Heaven" or "Sky"), Areum (아름; "Beauty"), Iseul (이슬; "Dew") and Seulgi (슬기; "Wisdom").
  • Originally, there was no legal limitation on the length of names in South Korea. As a result, some people registered extremely long given names composed of native Korean words, such as the 16-syllable Haneulbyeollimgureumhaennimbodasarangseureouri (하늘별님구름햇님보다사랑스러우리; roughly, "More beloved than the stars in the sky and the sun in the clouds"). However, beginning in 1993, new regulations required that the given name be five syllables or shorter.[2]

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