“Korea” in South Korean: “Hanguk”
By Alek Sigley.
In the last instalment of this series examining the linguistic differences between the languages of North and South Korea, we looked at the origins of the North Korean word for Korea, “Chosŏn”. As touched upon previously, in South Korea, a different word, “Hanguk” (한국; 韓國), is used to refer to Korea. The “kuk” in “han-guk” comes from a Chinese character meaning “country” or “nation”, thus “Hanguk” can be read as “the country of the Han”. But who are the Han (韓; note that they are not the same “Han” as in Han Chinese, which is a different character; 漢)? In this instalment we’ll explore the origins of the word “Hanguk”, and deal with the question of why it is that South Koreans refer to their country by a different name to their brethren in the North. Through the process we will discover that just like the North Korean word for Korea, “Chosŏn”, “Hanguk” also has a long and chequered past with roots in both modern and ancient Korean history.
A Tale of Four Republics
“Hanguk” is a shortening of the official name for South Korea, The Republic of Korea (ROK) or in Korean “taehanmin’guk” (대한민국; 大韓民國), which literally means “The Great Han Republic”, or, since “Han” here refers to Korea, “The Great Korean Republic”. “Tae” the Chinese character means “great”, “han”, as just mentioned refers to Korea, and “min’guk” means “republic”. Those familiar with Chinese history may recognise that “min’guk” (민국; 民國) is the older word for “republic” used in the official name of Sun Yat Sen’s Republic of China (ROC; zhonghuaminguo 中華民國), and remains the official name of Taiwan until today. The Chinese character “min” means “people” and “kuk” means “country” or “nation”. This is opposed to the newer word, konghwaguk (공화국; 共和國) in Korean or gongheguo in Chinese, which China and North Korea use in their official names, China being zhonghuarenmingongheguo (中華人民共和國), The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and North Korea being chosŏn-minjujuŭi-inmin-konghwaguk (조선민주주의인민공화국; 朝鮮民主主義人民共和國), The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). “gong” means “common”, “hwa” means peace and harmony, and “guk” is the same Chinese character as the “guk” in “min’guk” meaning “country”.
The fact that there’s a similarity between the ROK and ROC words for “republic” on the one hand, and the PRC and DPRK words on the other, are due to the respective states’ historical affinities. “Min’guk” is the older word that was first used in East Asia to translate the Western political concept of a republic, “Konghwaguk” coming later. The Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (Taehanmin’guk imshijŏngbu; 대한민국 임시정부; 大韓民國臨時政府), a Korean anti-colonial government in exile aimed at freeing Korea from Japanese rule, and which was headed at one point by first ROK president Syngman Rhee, was based in Shanghai from 1919, and received support from the ROC government. It was already using the present name for South Korea, i.e. “Taehanmin’guk”. China had been using “min’guk” to refer to “republic” in its name since the Republic of China’s founding in 1912. Thus as both have early 20th century origins they both use the old word, “min’guk”. Meanwhile the PRC and the DPRK trace their roots a bit later, the predecessor of the PRC being the Jiangxi Soviet/Chinese Soviet Republic (which both used the word “Konghwaguk”), founded in 1931. The DPRK was founded in 1948, but even earlier than that just after the surrender of Japan in 1945 there also briefly existed a Seoul-based People’s Republic of Korea (which also used the word “Konghwaguk”), which was forcibly dissolved by the US Army Military Government in 1946.
The ROC and the ROK, which use the word “min’guk”, were both also underlain by a right-wing nationalist ideology, just as both the PRC and DPRK, which use the other word for “republic”- “konghwaguk”, were both Communist (many of whom had fought together against the Japanese). Syngman Rhee was friends with Chiang Kai-Shek, and when the Japanese occupied Shanghai during WW2 the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was moved to Chongqing in inland China following the ROC government, which had lost its capital at Nanjing to the Japanese. However the word “konghwaguk” is now also used in the South too. It is used to refer to the successive governments of the ROK. Syngman Rhee’s government is known as the “Cheil Konghwaguk”, the First Republic, the government established after the “April Revolution” in 1960 is the “Chei Konghwaguk”, the Second Republic, and so on up until the present “Cheyuk Konghwaguk”, the Sixth Republic, which was founded in 1987.
When Korea was liberated in 1945, and Syngman Rhee was installed by the US as the leader of South Korea, South Korea’s name was taken from the provisional government’s, thus becoming Taehanmin’guk, shortened to Hanguk which is commonly used in South Korea today. But that’s not the end of the story. The name can be traced even further back into the past.
Kingdoms and Empires of the Han
As touched upon in the previous section on the origins of the word “Chosŏn” which North Koreans use to refer to Korea, the “Great Korean Empire” or “Great Han Empire” of 1897-1910 was officially named “Taehanjeguk” (대한제국; 大韓帝國). “Tae” means “great” and “han” refers to Korea, just like the “taehan” (which uses the same two Chinese characters) in “Taehanmin’guk”, the official name for South Korea, The Republic of Korea. The “cheguk” means “empire”, and in “taehanmin’guk” (Republic of Korea; South Korea) is replaced by “min’guk” meaning “republic”. So the official name for South Korea, “Taehanmin’guk”, which is shortened in the “Hanguk” of common usage, has its roots in the Colonial period provisional government’s official name “Taehanmin’guk imshijongbu”, which in turn references the ”Great Han Empire” (Taehanjeguk) of 1897-1910.
But the usage of the Chinese character “han” (한; 韓) to refer to Korea in the “Great Han Empire” can be traced back even further! Indeed, despite going back through the histories of the provisional government and the Great Han Empire, we still haven’t yet clarified who the “Han” really are. Going the furthest back to this word’s origins, we find that it is a reference to the “Samhan” (삼한; 三韓), or “three Han” kingdoms in early Korean history, namely, Mahan (마한; 馬韓), Chinhan (진한; 辰韓), and Pyŏnhan (변한; 弁韓). These first appeared after Kochosŏn (where the North Korean word for “Korea”, “Chosŏn” originates, see the previous section for more) collapsed around 100 BC. It is speculated that the word “han” here is a cognate (a related word) to the “khan” used in the titles of inner Asian leaders such as Genghis Khan. Thus Emperor Kojong’s choice to rename Chosŏn as “The Great Han Empire” was much like Ri Song Kye’s (who Kojong posthumously bestowed the emperor title to in 1899) throwback to Old Chosŏn (see the previous section on the word “Chosŏn”)– an attempt to generate prestige and authority by association with the kingdoms of ancient Korean history.
The Samhan became the precursors to the three kingdoms, Silla, Baekje and Koguryŏ. These three kingdoms then ended up vying for control of the peninsula until Silla with military assistance from the Chinese Tang dynasty, conquered Baekje in 660 AD and Koguryŏ in 668 AD. It’s interesting to note that the Samhan, where the South Korean word for Korea “Hanguk” has its roots, were located mostly in the Southern part of the Korean peninsula, while Kochosŏn, where the North Korean word for Korea “Chosŏn” originates, was located in the Northern part of the peninsula.
And that concludes our discussion of the history of the South Korean word for Korea, “Hanguk”. As we just saw, it has as just a complex history as the North Korean word for Korea, “Chosŏn”, with links to both early modern and ancient history. And like “Chosŏn”, it is a word with not just rich historical connotations, but also political, and geographical ones as well. In the next instalment of this series, we will look at how these differing words for Korea manifest themselves in the everyday speech of people in contemporary North and South Korea.
Interested in learning the North Korean language? Then check out our Pyongyang Summer Language Program, which will be run summer this year at Kim Il Sung University.
Pyongyang Summer Language Program:
Tongil Tours blog: the inaugural 2016 Pyongyang Summer Language program:
Huffington Post blog post by Tongil Tours founding partner and program participant Alek Sigley on being the first Australian to study in a North Korean university:
NKnews interview with Tongil Tours about the program:
Wikipedia article on historical names of Korea:
Wikipedia article on linguistic differences between North and South Korean: