Using the North Korean and South Korean words for Korea, “Chosŏn” and “Hanguk”
By Alek Sigley.
Now that we’ve explained what the North and South Korean words for Korea are (“Chosŏn” and “Hanguk” respectively), and where they derive from, let’s look at the practical usage of the words in North and South Korea.
As mentioned earlier, these different words for “Korea” also mean that by extension the words for concepts such as “Korean people”, “Korean peninsula”, the Korean language, traditional Korean clothing and housing, and words used to describe the other half of the peninsula are different across North and South Korean.
Here are some of the major differences resulting from these different words for Korea in North and South Korean:
|Meaning||North Korean||South Korean|
|Korea (as a whole)||Chosŏn/조선/朝鮮||Han’guk/한국/韓國|
|Korean language 2 (less formal)||Chosŏnmal/조선말/朝鮮말||Han’gungmal/한국말/韓國말|
|Korean people 2 (less formal)||Chosŏnsaram/조선사람/朝鮮사람||Han’guksaram/한국사람/韓國사람|
|Korean traditional clothing||Chosŏnot/조선옷/朝鮮옷||Hanbok/한복/韓服|
|Korean traditional housing||Chosŏnjip/조선집/朝鮮집||Hanok/한옥/韓屋|
Use the Right Words!
The most important rule to remember is that you should not use the “other Korea’s” words for referring to anything Korean while in a particular side of the peninsula. For example, avoid referring to the Korean language as “Han’gugŏ”, or Korean traditional style dress as “hanbok” while in North Korea. Do not refer to Korean people as “Chosŏnsaram” or “Chosŏnin” in South Korea.
In the lightest possible situation, mixing the two up will either create a comical effect, or confusion in the people you are talking to. People may not be familiar with the “other Korea’s” language, since the two sides generally have little exposure to each other, and thus have no idea what you are talking about. Or, they may draw entirely new connotations. If you referred to Korea as “Chosŏn” in South Korea, people might think you are a time traveller from the 19th or early 20th century (as Korea was referred to as “Chosŏn” back then).
If you used the North Korean words for Korea in South Korea, you may in the worst possible situation be viewed as a Communist spy or sympathiser, or “red” (bbalgaengi 빨갱이), and create tension between yourself and the people you are talking with. While many people who would be aware that North Korea still refers to Korea as “Chosŏn” will not care about the connection, some, particularly the older generation, may be offended. Cold War era anti-Communist ideology and propaganda were especially prevalent in the old days, and still somewhat linger on today.
Meanwhile, if you refer to Korea as “Hanguk” in North Korea, people would most likely not care too much, but there is the chance that someone might take offense at you contravening the official line, which always refers to South Korea as “Namchosŏn”, or south “Chosŏn”. To start using the word “Hanguk” and its derivatives is to imply that there are two cultures on the Korean peninsula, which goes against the official narrative of one united ethnicity separated not by their own cultural differences but by US interference. It would also go to legitimise South Korea, which is generally portrayed as an illegitimate puppet of the US in North Korean propaganda. And it also goes to deny their own sense of culture and identity. This would be especially the case if you referred to North Korea by the Southern term “Puk’an” while in North Korea, but can apply the other way around too (ie referring to South Korea as “Namchosŏn” in South Korea).
Puppets North and South
One interesting fact about the South Korean term for North Korea, “Puk’an”, is that it only started being used after the 1972 North-South Joint Communique, when North and South Korea had their first substantial contact since the Korean War. Before that, during a period of heightened anti-Communist sentiment, North Korea was only allowed by the South Korean government to be referred to as “pukkoe” (북괴; 北傀), or “northern puppets”. This is because they were painted as “puppets” of the Soviet Union, and the evil enemy of South Korea. But after the two sides began dialogue, the milder term “Puk’an” (“puk”= north, “han”= hanguk), began to be used, and is still used to the present day.
Despite the fact that this is a relatively milder term, note that North Koreans still do not like being referred to as “Puk’an”, yet continue to refer to South Korea as a “puppet regime” (남조선괴뢰정권; 南朝鮮傀儡政權) in their official media. This reminds me of one time when I had a couple notes from South Korea in my wallet, which I showed to our guides and driver in North Korea. They referred to it as “puppet money” (괴뢰돈), which goes to show this nomenclature goes beyond official discourse.
Walk the Minefield With Care
In summary, be aware that when you are going between the North and South Korean languages, you must take care to use the terms appropriate to whichever side of the peninsula you are addressing. You are walking a politico-linguistic minefield. This is because inter-Korean politics has shaped the Korean language in different ways on each side of the peninsula, and in a state in which both sides compete for legitimacy, it is the words tied most closely to each side’s political identity that become the most highly charged.
Some progressively aligned South Koreans and overseas Koreans who do inter-Korean work tend to refer to the North Korean half of the peninsula by their preferred term, “Pukchosŏn”, while continuing to refer to South Korea as “Hanguk” or “Namhan”. Some also refer to North Korea as the “Fatherland’s Northern Half” (조국북반부; 祖國北半部), or the “Northern Half of the Republic” (공화국북반부; 共和國北半部), allowing them to completely avoid using the contentious words “Chosŏn” or “Hanguk”. But most foreigners learning Korean needn’t concern themselves too much with this sort of situation. It does raise interesting questions in regards to reunification though. If there are already two different Korean identities on the peninsula that can’t even agree to call themselves by the same word, perhaps it means that mutual recognition and tolerance, rather than assimilation, need to be emphasised when approaching the issue. Thus it would be more akin to multiculturalism than “becoming one”.
To add one or two final comments to this discussion, it will also be interesting to note that the North Korean terms generally contain fewer hanja, or Chinese character-derived words. Compare the two different words for Korean traditional clothing for example. In North Korea, the indigenous word for clothing, “ot” is used to make “chosŏnot”, while in South Korea, the Sino-Korean, Chinese character-derived word for clothing “pok” is used to make “hanbok”. This is generally because that in North Korea Kim Il Sung led a campaign to reduce the amount of Chinese-derived words in the Korean language, in favour of indigenous words. This is tied in with his “Juche” political ideology which emphasises Korea’s political and cultural independence from the great powers.
A Note on Diasporas
Also, the politically fraught relationship between different terms for “Korea” in the Korean language gain yet another dimension when looking at the Korean diaspora. Japan’s zainichi Korean population is for example split between support for North and South Korea. Thus the choice of words they use to refer to themselves and their identity reflects their political allegiance. Furthermore, “Chosŏn” can also have the connotation of not North Korea but a neutral, pre-division position, since Korea was at that time referred to only as “Chosŏn”. Thus the Japanese Government issues Zainichi Koreans, who were brought over before the end of WWII, travel and identity documents referring to Korea as “Chosŏn”. This is not because Japan recognises North Korea—it doesn’t, but because it was legally obligated by the US Occupation to allow Zainichi Koreans the option to stay in Japan and not choose between either North or South Korea. And in this case, “Chosŏn” simply refers to Korea in the old sense, not the North Korean one.
And then you have the Central Asian Korean diaspora, who originally migrated to Russia’s Far East during the late 19th century. When the USSR was formed, Stalin, who distrusted them, forced them to move to Central Asia. After the USSR collapsed and the Central Asian republics became independent, 500,000 ethnic Koreans were left all over Central Asia. These people refer to themselves not by “Chosŏn” or “Hanguk” but by the name of the kingdom that existed on the Korean peninsula from the 10th– 14th centuries, “Koryŏ” (where the English word “Korea” derives from). Thus they are known as the “Koryŏin” or “Koryŏsaram”.
That wraps up our discussion of the different words for Korea in North and South Korea and overseas, and how they are used. Next, we will talk about different terms of address in North and South Korean.
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.