Korean Names in Everyday Conversation

So, being an avid North Korea-watcher, I’ve been thinking about Kim Jong Un’s execution of Uncle Song…or would it be Uncle Song-Thaek? It occurred to me that I don’t know which part(s) of their names that Koreans use in casual conversation. (I know Koreans may not use the construction of Uncle [Name], but I’m still going to think of him as Uncle Song…or Uncle Song-Thaek)

By “Koreans” I mean Koreans who live in Korea and have typical names.

Most (all?) Koreans seem to have 3-part names. Lets use the following people as examples:
Jang Song-Thaek - Kim Jong Un’s now-deceased uncle
Ri Sol-Ju - Mrs. Kim Jong Un
Ban Ki-Moon - Secretary General of the UN
Park Jae-Sang - aka Psy

So, we know the name in the first position is what we Americans call the last name - the surname or family name. In the U.S., we’d call our example people Mr. Jang, Ms. Ri, etc.

But what about the second two names? Do they use one or both, or does it depend? Did Mr. Jang’s schoolmates call him Song or Song-Thaek? Does Kim Jong Un call his wife Sol-Ju? Does she call him Jong-un? Did the Secretary General’s mommy call him Ki or Ki-Moon? Does Psy’s cousin call him Jae or Jae-Sang?

Would this vary between the North and the South? According to other factors?

It’s Song-Thaek, Sol-Ju, Jong-Un, Ki-Moon, etc. Song, Jong, Sol, Ki, etc, are just syllables. It’s just that using the preferred Romanization of Korean words, the hyphen is used to separate the first syllable.

Although names commonly have two syllables, it’s considered one “part.” So if someone’s name is Gil-dong, no one would ever refer to him as “Gil” (unless it’s a nickname among friends, maybe). You have a family name and a given name. Koreans have no concept of middle names. As an aside, two syllable family names do exist (as opposed to the common single syllable family name, like Lee or Park), as do given names that are one syllable or three syllables instead of the usual two.

Korean people don’t really call each other by their names. My parents call me by my name, of course. I call my little brother by his name, but he used to get in huge trouble when we were little if he called me by my name. He had to call me “nuna” which is what boys call their older sisters. Anyone who is above you in the social hierarchy, whether due to age or something else, is someone you cannot call by name. Once you have a child, people often refer to you as “Gildong’s dad/mom” instead of your name.

Thanks for the answers.

How do you all deal with the fact that certain last names are so common and that the overall pool of typical last names is small? Are there a lot of mix-ups? Do people take pains to make sure given names are unique or is it just part of everyday life that if you’re talking about Kim Gil-dong, you’re going to make sure that you’re both talking about the same Kim Gil-dong?

Ask the next Ms. Smith or Mr. Jones about that?

Smith and Jones may seem common to us, but half of the population of Korea is named Kim, Lee, or Park, and there are “only about 250 Korean family names currently in use.”


I thought it was common knowledge that Koreans’ surname distribution was very different than ours. I should have specified.

It’s actually not that common to find people with both the same first name and last name. Korean given names are a bit different from Western names in that it’s very easy to “create” names. For example. “Yoon” is a very common first syllable, so there are a lot of names that begin with Yoon, but the second syllable could be anything. Yoonju, Yoonji, Yoongyung, Yoonhae. There ARE syllable combinations that are common, of course. Jiwon is a common girl’s name, for example, and Eunsok is a common boy’s name. But I think in all my years of teaching, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had two students in the same class with exactly the same name.

Also the same last name can have different origins. Lee is a common last name, but there are two different Lee families, broadly speaking. One is descended from the Chosun royal dynasty, and one is not. It’s sort of a moot point in this day and age, because at the end of the Chosun period many noble families sold their titles to the merchant class, so even if you have a royal origin you can’t be sure if it is yours by blood or by purchase. Not that anyone cares anymore.

One more data point: there is a tradition when it comes to naming boys (not girls). Every boy in a given generation is supposed to share a common syllable in their name. For example, my brother’s name is Junsu, and my cousins are Junyong, Junchul, Junhyon, etc. The syllables are listed in the family records and go in cycles (so once you come to the end of the list, you just go back to the beginning again.) So if you meet a complete stranger that shares the same last name origin as you do AND shares a syllable in your first name, it’s most likely that you are distantly related. But this only works if you are a guy; Confucian tradition doesn’t care what you name girls.

Some people in Taiwan do that as well. My wife’s cousin married into a family, only to discover that the next generation’s syllable (character) was really old-fashioned. She tried to break tradition, but eventually caved.

Another question: I recall reading a loooooong time ago, that Koreans with the same last name, (or perhaps with the same branch of the last name?) couldn’t get married. However, if the were living overseas, then they could and it would be recognized.

Did this ever happen?

Well, this happens in other cultures as well, at least among the relatives of classmates (I promise my legal name is not Navanephew’s Aunt, but it’s what most of his classmates call me, with the respectful “you”). Would it happen outsidde of that context as well? I mean, for example, at the grocer’s would a woman go from being Mrs. Lee to being Gildong’s mother?

While living in Korea, I knew more than a few families who followed this tradition for both boys and girls (some families used the same “generation name” for both and some families had different “generation names” for boys and for girls) and also more than a few families who didn’t follow the tradition at all.

Example: My friend’s name is Kim Gil-Dong. At work, subordinates call him Kim-shi or Kim Gil-Dong-shi (shi being the honorific like “Mr.”) Friends and brothers might call him Gil-Dong, or they might call him by the name of his children (Father-of-whomever). As mentioned above, family members often refer to each other by name/rank. Kim Gil-Dong’s younger brothers would call him Hyung and his younger sisters would call him Oppa. Once Kim starts to age, basically any random person might call him Halaboji (grandfather).

As to the second part of your question, I have no idea how they tell each other apart. The full name gets used a LOT because otherwise it would be mass confusion over what Kim you are talking about at any given moment.

Are there Korean names/expressions that are used to mean “random anonymous person” and “ordinary typical person,” like we’d use John Doe or “a regular Joe?”*
Also, which of the most common Korean surnames are also commonly used among Chinese people of non-Korean descent? For example, I’ve met plenty of Chinese Lees, but I don’t know that I’ve ever met a Kim or Park who was anything but Korean.

  • I once used “a regular Cho.” :stuck_out_tongue:

Besides what’s already been mentioned, ie that in Korean culture you usually only address people younger than yourself by their given names, I’d add a few comments:
-Korean names usually consist of 3 syllables, one syllable family name and two syllable given name. However one syllable given names are not that rare, and, like the starting syllable of a two syllable given name, it’s something which tends to run in families. Less commonly, there are a few two syllable Korean family names. People with two syllable family names seem to almost always have one syllable given names.

An unusual percentage of early luminaries in North Korean military/politics, though not Kim Il Sung of course, seemed to have had one syllable given names. They might in cases have been pseudonyms. For example the front commander for the Korean Peoples Army invasion of South Korea in 1950 was Kim Chaek, and the vice commander of their air force at that time was Lee Whal.

-older relatives might call younger ones by the second part of their given names, with the appendage -ah, also often attached even if they use both syllables. So a girl named Seo-yun, might be called Yun-ah or Seo Yun-ah by older relatives, but not Seo-ah.

-The modern ROK way to transliterate names is to capitalize the first syllable of the given name and use a hyphen between parts. The NK way is still to capitalize each syllable without a hyphen, so Kim Jung Un in DPRK is technically Gim Jeong-eun in the ROK. And also as in that example, the transliteration of the syllables themselves may differ. However in ROK many people transliterate their names by older conventions (eg. many people with that name still write it ‘Kim’ rather than the current official ‘Gim’, even in ROK). And if the particular person’s own style of transliterating their name is known, it’s used.

-in a few cases names are spelled differently in the Korean alphabet in ROK v DPRK. The most important example is the very common name usually written ‘Lee’ in Latin letters. In the DPRK it’s spelled with the Korean letter approximating ‘r’ and so pronounced and transliterated Rhee or Ri. In the ROK it’s spelled without a first consonant, pronounced ‘ee’, and officially written ‘Yi’ (though again most people with that name write it as ‘Lee’, and even some in the ROK write ‘Rhee’).

-so even the Korean alphabet rendering of a name is not definitive. A Korean person’s ‘real’ name consists of the Chinese characters, one per syllable, which make up the name. Two people whose names have identical spellings in the Korean alphabet, but different Chinese characters, which isn’t rare, do not have the ‘same name’. And by the same token even if the name ‘Lee’ is written differently in the Korean alphabet in DPRK v ROK it’s still the same Chinese character and therefore the same name (also same as Chinese people who write their name ‘Li’). In ROK people’s names are still usually written on their business cards in Chinese characters as well as Korean alphabet; media articles will generally write the person’s name in Chinese parenthetically the first time it’s mentioned. However in DPRK this isn’t done, and the third character of Kim Jung Un’s name was only ascertained (publicly at least) by seeing how it was written in Chinese media sources believed to be writing it correctly.

  1. Mo-ssi (모씨, 某씨) is like Mr. So and so, a certain person, etc.

  2. As mentioned, 李, written 이 and 리 in the ROK and DPRK respectively and transliterated Lee, Rhee, Ri, Yi etc from Korean is the same name as Li in China. It’s the most common surname in China (~8% of the population) and second most common in Korea (though ~15% of the population).
    Virtually all Korean surnames come from China but they vary widely as to how common they are in China. The most common Korean name, Kim/Gim (김, 金), ‘gold’, is Jin in Mandarin, 64th most common name in China. 朴 박 Park, Bak is third in Korea but a very rare name in China if anyone of not recent Korean descent has it at all. 張 장 Jang/Chang in Korea, Zhang in Mandarin, is No. 3 in China, No. 10 in Korea, and so on.

Just drop the key, Lee. Set yourself free.

Overheard in a Korean Law firm, Wee Il-Su.

OK, time to remember Lost.

Whenever Sun talked to Jin in Korean, she used some sort of term that I could never quite understand-- it was always spoken too quickly. I believe it had 3 syllables. Any Korean speakers know what I’m talking about? (If I had to guess, it was something like Jin-Ju-Shue, but I could be completely wrong).

There’s no true equivalent to John Doe in Korean. On sample forms (where they show you how to fill stuff out) they usually use the name Hong Gildong (he’s the Korean version of Robin Hood, I suppose).

In textbooks of a certain generation conversations are usually held between Cholsu (boy) and Yonghee (girl). I don’t know if those names are commonly used anymore - they’re a bit old-fashioned now.

Yes, it varies from family to family, but traditionally it is only for boys.

If you share a last name of the same origin, you have to prove that you are not closer than what Koreans call 8-chon if you want to get married. (I think it would be 3rd cousins in American terms.)

Yes. What’s even more confusing is that sometimes they drop the “mother” part. For example, when at my uncle’s house, sometimes my aunt will call out “HazelNutCoffee!” but she’s not calling me, she’s calling my mom.

In general your identity is changed by having kids. Women will stop referring to their husband as “my husband” and instead say “the kids’ father.”

As a Korean I find it fascinating that people avoid using names as much as possible. There are countless titles you can use among family members that are very specific (for example, what you call your husband’s brother’s wife is different from what you’d call his sister, even though technically they are both your sisters-in-law, and you would NEVER call either of them by name even if they were younger than you). In the workplace people address each other by title as well, even their subordinates.

She probably called him Jin-Su shi (pronounced like the pronoun “she”). As someone mentioned above, “shi” is something you can stick on to someone’s name to show mild respect, like Mr or Ms. Many older married couples still use it when they refer to each other.

OK, and I wasn’t too far off on what I thought I was hearing. In case you aren’t familiar with the show, the couple was quite young. Would it be unusual for someone in their 20s or early 30s to use that term? Sun was supposedly from a very wealthy family and Jin was poor, but working for her father.