[Column] ‘Choson’: Is it time we start referring to N. Korea in its own terms?

Posted on : 2024-04-23 16:54 KST Modified on : 2024-04-23 16:54 KST
Mutual acknowledgment is the first step to peace and coexistence, so perhaps we in South Korea should give up the term “Bukhan” (North Korea) for the name it prefers: “Choson”
(Getty Images Bank)
(Getty Images Bank)

“If its official name is the “Democratic People’s Republic of Choson,’ or ‘Choson’ for short, why do we call it ‘North Korea’?”

This protesting question is one I have sometimes encountered during public lectures. Implicit within it is the suggestion that if we want to pursue true reconciliation and peace, we should start by using the proper nomenclature. Even so, I have stuck with the word “Bukhan,” the Korean version of “North Korea.”

I can also remember pleading for understanding with one of these questioners.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” I said. “But as someone who gets denounced all the time as ‘pro-North Korea’ or a ‘North Korean sympathizer’ anyway, I feel like people’s prejudices would just be reinforced if I used the term ‘Choson,’ so I say ‘Bukhan.’”

Historically, the two sides have used different terms to refer to each other.

In the documents signed by their leaders from the June 15 Joint Declaration of 2000 to the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018, the terms used have been “Daehanminguk (Republic of Korea)” and “Choson Minjujuui Inmin Konghwaguk (Democratic People’s Republic of Choson).” When people from the two sides have met or had dialogue, they have tended to use the descriptors “South” and “North” for each other.

Apart from these cases, South Korea has officially used the term “Bukhan” for Choson, while Choson has used “Nam Choson (south Choson)” for South Korea.

In truth, there is some potential here for argument, since “Bukhan” posits the North as an extension of South Korea and “Nam Choson” posits the South as an extension of Choson. But neither side has made much of an issue of this.

That could be because of a general consensus that they were pursuing reconciliation, cooperation, and peaceful reunification, while considering their relationship to be a “special interim relationship stemming from the process towards reunification” rather than “a relationship between states.” This is what made dialogue and cooperation possible in the past.

Recently, however, the situation has shifted dramatically.

There has not been any dialogue between the two sides since December 2018, and there has been no interchange in terms of people or items. Both sides have taken to referring to the other as the “principal enemy,” and the exchanges of harsh rhetoric and shows of force have reached critical levels.

It was in this context that Choson began referring to the South as “Daehanminguk” (“ROK”) in July 2023, rather than the regular “Nam Choson” (“south Korea”). It has also shown its hostility by combining that term with others like “puppet” or “creatures.” Recently, it has even referred to the bilateral relationship as one between two “belligerent states” that are “hostile to each other.”

As its main reason for this, the Kim Jong-un regime has cited South Korea’s pursuit of “unification by absorption,” while the Yoon Suk-yeol administration has only grown louder in its calls for “advancing freedom northward.”

Many have expressed an exasperated hope that if the sides can’t be closer, they should at least not fight. This has led me to consider where a good place would be to start — and it occurs to me that “Choson” may be such a place.

The starting point for peaceful coexistence lies in mutual acknowledgment. The other party in this case, Choson, refers to us as “Daehanminguk” and asks in return to be called “Choson Minjujuui Inmin Konghwaguk,” or “Choson” for short.

In a JoongAng Ilbo column published on Jan. 15, 2020, Yonsei University professor Park Myung-lim suggested, “Rather than approaching South-North relations by positing a ‘Bukhan’ and ‘Nam Choson’ that don’t actually exist in reality, the right approach is for them to each exist and approach each other as ‘Daehanminguk’ (Republic of Korea) and the ‘Choson Minjujuui Inmin Konghwaguk’ (Choson, DPRK).” It occurs to me that perhaps South Koreans should seriously consider adopting the term “Choson.”

This is not simply because Choson wants that. Even the Yoon administration, which has adopted a uniformly hard line toward Pyongyang, has claimed that the “door to dialogue with North Korea is open” — but the second we start calling them “Bukhan,” the door to dialogue shuts tight.

In that sense, we ought to consider things along practical lines. Many psychologists have said that the most effective way to change another party’s words and actions is by building rapport. But when we insist on using the term “Bukhan,” we not only fail to establish rapport with the people of Choson — we arouse feelings of antipathy. We can observe this in the way that captains of Choson teams at sporting competitions have vocally protested and refused to answer questions when South Korean reporters have referred to “Bukhan.”

This conversely means that if we start using the term “Choson,” we may be able to establish some minimal rapport. That could go some way toward opening the door for dialogue.

I’m aware that there is much room for debate here. At the same time, we also need to confront the unfortunate reality that people on the Korean Peninsula are faced with. South Korea and Choson are the closest of neighbors with the most antagonistic of relationships.

So in order to do away with some of the hostility that has built up over time, why don’t we start by calling each other by our proper names?

By Cheong Wook-Sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute and director of the Peace Network

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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