[COLUMN] Should we ask foreigners to call our country Hankook?

By Park Sae-jin Posted : May 18, 2023, 14:36 Updated : May 18, 2023, 14:36

[Courtesy of Michael Breen]

[This article was contributed by Michael Breen, the CEO of Insight Communications and a former foreign correspondent]

SEOUL -- Now that President Yoon Seok-yeol has clearly declared that South Korea is a free market democracy and aligns itself with like-minded nations, it is now time to go one step further and disassociated ourselves in the global perception from North Korea?
Of course, in our own minds, we are already very separate from North Korea. We know we are different. We know that people in other countries actually like us. In fact, they admire us. Foreigners want to visit – not for a weird "holiday in hell" but for an inspiring vacation. Many foreigners come to live and work here.
But the ugly truth is that much of the world still associates us with North Korea. International surveys show that the best-known fact about "Korea" is that it is not one, but two countries and that, despite K-pop and Sohn Heung-min, a lot of people get them mixed up. It's not just that there is confusion about which one is amazing – us – and which is embarrassingly ghastly. It is that the values and behaviors associated with North Korea are somehow seen as being "Korean."
I don’t want to exaggerate this. The truth is that North Koreans traveling overseas are sometimes happy to be mistaken for South Koreans. Our reputation is much better.
But it is nevertheless confusing and unfair to us. North and South are different countries. Just because they are neighbors, what is the reason that their horrendous dictatorship and useless government – which basically means they have no friends – pollute the reputation of our democracy?
The reason lies in the word Korea.
Only close Asian neighbors use something that sounds like Hankook and Joseon. "Korea" is used in English, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Faroese, Finnish, German, Greek, Indonesian, Malay, Maltese, Norwegian, Swedish, and Tagalog. Similarly, we are called Corea by the Italians, Romanians, Spanish, and Welsh), Corée by the French, Coreia by the Portuguese, Kaoli in Thailand, Koreio by speakers of Esperanto, Koreja by Bulgarians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Russians, Serbians, and Slovenes, and Kuria by the Inuktitut. All these people distinguish between the two sides by adding "North" or "South" in their own language.
Why does everyone use this word "Korea"? It is because we ask them to. North and South Korea disagree about almost everything, but we do agree on this.
Perhaps in keeping with President Yoon’s confident new foreign policy direction, we should change cut ourselves loose from this heavy weight? Why not ask the world to call us by our proper name? Let's give North Koreans "Korea" for free, as a gift that shows our goodwill. And let’s rebrand ourselves internationally as Hankook.
This decision is ours to make. Unlike the seas around our shores, where naming requires international agreement, a country has the right to decide what it wants to be called. In 1989, for example, when Burma announced it was to be known as Myanmar, the United Nations immediately accepted the change.
If we do this, the North Koreans might be forced by their own constitution to object because it considers that we belong to them (and vice versa). But this will not really be an obstacle as we are separate countries in the United Nations.
Kim Jong-un will certainly accuse us of being "anti-unification." But a name change will in fact be more conducive to unification.
If you consider our history, the insistence by both countries on being called “Korea” is a consequence of their respective commitment to re-unification. The posture of both states has always been an appeal to the world, "Believe us. We are the real Korea. The other one is not." The objective of both states has been to dissolve the other side and absorb its territory and people. Each wishes to position re-unified Korea, not as a new state, but as an expanded version of itself.
As you can see, this vision is inherently aggressive on both sides. That is why peace talks of previous governments have gone nowhere.
It is impossible for us to unify in a way that surrenders our democracy and free market principles, but our approach could be less aggressive. We could say, “We have a vision of our future as a great country. If you want to join with us at some point in the future, you may. If you don't, if you want to continue as a separate country, we will respect your choice.”
A good way to signal such a voluntary approach to re-unification would be to drop our claim to own the word "Korea" and go forward in the world proudly in English and other languages as “Hankook.”
This will be complicated. For example, K-Pop will have to become H-Pop and the Red Devils will have to write some new songs.
But we will gain some nationalistic satisfaction. By calling us what we call ourselves, foreigners will be closer to our hearts. Only a few countries use one name at home and another overseas. For example, the real name for Greece is Ellada. Also, Greenland is known locally as Kalaallit Nunaat. Another exception is “Deutschland,” which we call Dogil and other foreigners call by many names, including Germany, Allemagne, Jarmal, Nemecko, Saksa, Tyskland, and Vokietija. (That’s their punishment for starting two world wars). But most countries go by the same name at home and abroad, albeit with differences in pronunciation. Perhaps we should do that too.
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