Where is “Korea”? What do you call “Korea”?
Few years ago, when I was an undergraduate student learning Korean, one of my professors started his methodology class about Korean studies with these two questions: Where is “Korea”? What do you call “Korea”?
Back then, everyone was quite sure about the answer and was wondering why a professor would ask that kind of question to students who are majoring in Korean. Indeed, we all knew where and what Korea was and some of us even lived there for a little while. So that question seemed to be out of context…
Well, after thinking a bit more deeply about it, the answer was more complex than what we thought. When we refer to “Korea” in English or to “Corée” in French for example, we are all refering to the Korean peninsula which is composed of two countries “North Korea” and “South Korea”. But there is also a part of Korea in China, the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Then, the word “Korea” should probably include that part of China as well.
Right, then we know where and what is Korea! The only problem is that there is actually no word in Korean that refers to Korea, to Korean people and to Korean language… In South Korea, people use the term “한국” (Hanguk) to refer to “Korea” (literally the country of the Han (韓國) different with the Han from China), “한국인” (Hangukin) to refer to themselves and “한국어” (Hangukeo) to refer to their language. In North Korea, people use the term “조선” (Chosun) to refer to Korea (in reference to the Chosun (朝鮮) dynasty that used to rule Korea for centuries), “조선인” (Chosunin) to refer to themselves and “조선어” (Chosuneo) to refer to their language. Koreans from the Yanbian district in China are called “조선적” (Chosuncheok) by South and North Koreans, but they tend to find it offending and they don’t usually refer to themselves using that word.
Therefore the term “Korea” that we use in the languages we speak cannot be translated into Korean. If, I refer to Korea as “hanguk” then I’m only speaking about one third of what Korea is in my language. I could use the South Korean terms “북한” (bukhan) to refer to North Korea (litteraly the North Han) or “남한” (namhan) to refer to South Korea (litteraly South Han) or I could decide to use the North Korean terms “북조선” (buk chosun, North Chosun) or “남조선” (nam Chosun, South Chosun). But all those words are not neutral, and by using them I am actually expressing my political opinions. It is a real dilemma! A simple sentence like “I don’t speak Korean” forces me to make a choice that will show where I stand and according to who I am speaking with, I should make sure to use the word that my interlocutor is expecting.
Having no word that expresses the concept of “Korea” as one entity reveals how the reunification of the two countries is a hard task. The division is not only political, it is also on a linguistic level (Although there is not that many differences between the Korean spoken in North Korea and the Korean spoken in South Korea).
Another interesting fact is the more and more popular use of the English word “코리아” (Korea) in Korean. As if the new generation was feeling the importance of using a more neutral word to refer to Korea in its globality, in order to go beyond the division.