Names of Korea

By: Minsoo Kang

May 19, 2017

Why ‘Korea’ has so many names

For Korean Americans who are pondering the land of their ancestors, perhaps with a mind to writing about their heritage, one complexity they may face immediately is the confusing number of names for the country. ‘Korea’ itself is actually a rather general term for the north Asian peninsula that is occupied by two countries with distinct names (North Korea and South Korea are NOT the official names of the nations, as I will show). There is the further problem of the fact that ‘Korea’ is a term used for foreigners as the native people of the region do not call themselves ‘Koreans’ in their native language, in the same way that the Deutsch do not call themselves German, the Hellen Greek, or the Magyar Hungarian. Closer to ‘Korea,’ both China and Japan are also foreign names for Zhungguo (‘Central Country’) and Nippon (‘Origin of the Sun’) respectively. So what do Koreans call themselves and their countries? The sheer complexity of the answer speaks to the tumultuous history of the region in the modern era.

‘Korea’ is a distortion of Goryeo, the dynastic kingdom that ruled over the peninsula from 918 Common Era to 1392 that is represented by the Chinese ideograms 高麗 and Korean characters (hangeul) 고려, with the literal meaning of ‘Lofty Beauty.’ It has been theorized that Persian or Arabian merchants in China learned of the place sometime after the founding of the dynasty and spread the name across Eurasia, resulting in the peninsula becoming known outside of North Asia by some variation of Corea or Korea to this day. South Korea and North Korea are informal names of the two modern nations on the peninsula which are formally called, in English, Republic of Korea (ROK – South) and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – North).

The people of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) refer to their own country as ‘Dae Han Minguk’ (대한민국), ‘Hanguk’ for short, which can be translated as the Great Nation of the People of Han. The term ‘Han’ is a relatively modern adoption, represented by the Chinese ideogram 韓 (pronounced in a similar way but written differently from the Chinese dynasty and the majority ethnic group of China – 漢). In 1897, the penultimate monarch King Gojong (r. 1863-1907) officially brought an end to the Joseon dynasty by renaming the country Dae Han Jeguk (대한제국), literally ‘Great Han Empire’ but usually referred to in English as Empire of Korea, to signal the country’s discontinuation of fealty to China after Qing Empire’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. ‘Han’ was a reference to the Sam Han (Three Han) period of early Korean history (c. 100 BCE–350 CE) when three kingdoms called Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonghan ruled over the southern and central part of the peninsular. The name was revived because it was thought that the Han kingdoms never regarded themselves as subordinate to a foreign power. At the end of the Japanese colonial period of 1910-1945, the newly established nation of ‘South Korea’ continued the use of ‘Han,’ resulting in its people referring to themselves as ‘Hangukin’ (Hanguk people), their language as ‘Hangukmal’ or ‘Hangukeo,’ and the native writing script as ‘Hangeul’ (Han writing). The Chinese and the Japanese refer to the country by their pronunciation of the Chinese ideograms for Hanguk – 韓國 – Hanguo (Chinese) and Kankoku (Japanese).

The people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea – Voltaire might have joked that the country is not democratic, not the people’s, not a republic, and not even ‘Korea’) refer to their own country as Joseon Minjujueui Inmin Gonghwaguk (조선민주주의인민공화국, literally Joseon Democratic People’s Republic). As apparent, the nation did not revive ‘Han’ at its founding in 1948 but reverted back to the old dynastic name. Joseon (hangeul – 조선, Chinese ideograms – 朝鮮), with the literal meaning of ‘Pristine Morning,’ was the name of the first semi-mythical kingdom on the peninsula (c. 7th century – early 2nd century BCE). The name was revived when a new dynasty was established in 1392 that lasted until the establishment of the Empire of Korea in 1897 and Japanese colonization in 1910. To avoid confusion, the first Joseon is referred to in history books as Go Joseon (고조선 – ‘Ancient Joseon’). For the people of the North, the Korean language is ‘Joseonmal’ or ‘Joseoneo,’ and the native writing script is ‘Joseongeul’ (Joseon writing). As a result of the revival of ‘Joseon’ by the modern state of the north, the Chinese refer to the country as Chaoxian (Chinese for Joseon, 朝鮮, or colloquially Bei Chaoxian, 北朝鮮North Joseon) and the Japanese as Kitachōsen (North Joseon).

South Koreans commonly refer to North Korea as ‘Bukhan’ (북한, ‘North Han’) and North Koreans as ‘Bukhanin,’ which North Koreans find extremely offensive as they have eschewed the term ‘Han.’ North Koreans, on their part, commonly refer to South Korea as ‘Nam Joseon’ (남조선, ‘South Joseon’) which South Koreans find amusingly quaint. This has also created a confusing situation for the Japanese. During the colonial era they referred to Koreans as Chōsenjin (Joseon person), but following independence that became offensive especially to South Koreans as a legacy of imperialism. In fact, it became a racial slur against Koreans, still used by right-wing nationalists, though more commonly now in the abbreviated form of ‘Senjin.’ So the Japanese now have to refer specifically to South Koreans as Kankokujin (Hanguk person) and North Koreans as Kitachōsenjin (North Joseon person). It is also interesting that the Japanese also use the term Korian (コリアン, from ‘Korean’) for ethnic Koreans living in Japan.

1) Korea – from Goryeo dynasty (918-1392)
2) Joseon – from Joseon dynasty (1392-1897 and 1910)
3) Official name of South Korea in English – Republic of Korea (ROK)
4) Native name of Republic of Korea – Dae Han Minguk (대한민국 – Great Nation of the People of Han), Hanguk (한국 – Han Nation) for short.
5) Official name of North Korea in English – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)
6) Native name of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – Joseon Minjujueui Inmin Gonghwaguk (조선민주주의인민공화국 – Joseon Democratic People’s Republic).
7) South Korean name for North Korea – Buk Han (‘North Han’)
8) North Korean name for South Korea – Nam Joseon (‘South Joseon’)
9) Chinese name for South Korea – Hanguo (Han Nation)
10) Chinese name for North Korea – Chaoxian (Joseon)
11) Japanese name for South Korea – Kankoku (Han Nation)
12) Japanese name for North Korea – Kitachōsen (North Joseon).

Minsoo Kang is an associate professor of history at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. He is the author of the history book Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination, the short story collection Of Tales and Enigmas, and the translator of the Penguin Classic edition of the Joseon dynasty novel The Story of Hong Gildong. His book-length study of The Story of Hong Gildong is forthcoming in 2018 under the title The Invincible and Righteous Outlaw: Hong Gildong, the Noble Robber of Korea, in literature, history, and culture.