Korea should change name
By Michael Breen
In the wake of the Cheonan attack, South Koreans are once again confronting their complex relationship with North Korea.
With the hatred generated by the division of the country and the 1950-53 civil war largely gone, most want their government to do what it can to get along with the peculiar regime in the North because, regardless of how bad things are, they see the two countries as family.
The problem with this, though, is that South Korea is internationally damaged by its association with its wayward brother. One solution is for South Korea to do what it has already done in the Korean language and change its English name. I have argued this point in these pages before, but as recent events make the need even more clear, it is worth raising it again.
South Korea, as we all know, is called Hankook, which is short for Daehan Minguk, while the North calls itself ``Joseon." (Unofficially, we refer to northerners as "North Han" and they say people here are from ``South Joseon.")
These official names underscore what is for Koreans on both sides a very clear truth ― that, for now, despite what happened for centuries before 1948 and despite what may happen in the future, the peninsula is divided into two countries. The people in the South are not responsible for what the people in the North say and do, and vice versa.
But that truth is not at all clear for outsiders.
Unfortunately, by any measure ― economics, democracy, human rights, good governance ― North Korea is one of the worst countries in the world. The heavy weight of that terrible reputation drags neighboring South Korea to a place lower in the world's estimation than it should be.
That is because of the word ``Korea." Both governments call their country ``Korea" and both peoples refer to themselves as ``Koreans." When two countries call themselves by the same name, it is only natural for international audiences to consider them similar, if not the same.
Of course, for most of its history, the peninsula was whole. In their historical references, the two countries have shared memories, even if they interpret them differently and highlight different parts to suit those interpretations. Furthermore, the two countries are heading in a direction of eventual reunification, however far off that may seem today.
On a practical level, South Koreans may argue against this, telling foreigners, ``Oh no, we really don't want unification, certainly not now and not suddenly. We are so different from those people." But this argument does not work to sufficiently separate the two peoples from being seen by foreigners as having something in common. When people say they are from ``North" and ``South," it means they are from different parts of the same country and that therefore they are prepared to take some responsibility for one another.
The use of ``Korea" has a strange history in that it has survived the country's Korean-language name changes through the Yi Dynasty, the Japanese occupation and establishment of the Republic of Korea and the People's Democratic Republic of Korea. (The word is believed to have evolved from ``Cauli" which was how the Italian traveler Marco Polo heard other foreigners refer to the 935-1392 Goryeo dynasty. This turned into ``Corea" and then ended up in English as ``Korea.")
With the Cheonan incident another reminder of South Korea's need to distance itself in international perception from North Korea, the time has come for South Korea to consider the pros and cons of changing its English name.
Despite the history of informal use, countries have a right to decide their international name. In 1989, when Burma announced it was to be known as Myanmar, the United Nations immediately accepted the change.
Korea does not need to act on this immediately, but it is something that can be debated now and international events such as the World Cup and the G-20 can be used to create international familiarity with an alternative name.
The most obvious choice is to use the Korean word and call the country Hankook.
From a strategic point of view, such a change would clarify the real separation that exists between the two countries and alter international perceptions.
If eventually announced, most countries would adopt the new country name, except that is, North Korea.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.