[OUTLOOK]Korea Divided by a Common Language

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[OUTLOOK]Korea Divided by a Common Language

A UN official in Pyongyang is frustrated because the authorities don't like the tires on his car. In South Hamkyong province at about the same time, a North Korean boy peers at the side of a bus, trying to make out some taped-over Korean writing. A couple of years later, South Korean workers bend over by the side of a newly-paved road with portable grinders in their hands. All because of one little word, spelled several different ways in English.

Lee Young-jong's column in Monday's JoongAng Ilbo English Edition brought back several memories of my three-plus years working in North Korea. Mr. Lee noted that the North Korean government refuses to allow South Koreans there to use the word "Hanguk," the South Korean name for its country. Up in the North, that's a dirty word.

Names have the power to stir controversy everywhere, but the North Koreans have hair-trigger sensitivities. A United Nations official in Pyongyang told me several years ago about problems his office encountered because some of their vehicles used Hankook tires imported from the South; and at the KEDO site along the east coast, we became accustomed to outbursts of anti-southern fervor over the word "Hanguk."

One of our earliest crises developed the day before the opening ceremony of the site in 1997, when the North Koreans saw a sign at the entrance to the construction site which had the full name of the Korea Electric Power Corporation written in Korean - including the banned word "Hanguk" at the beginning. Under pressure to avoid a threatened North Korean boycott of the ceremony and because the sign did not, in fact, comply with the letter of the rules we had agreed with the North Koreans, we blocked the view of the offending sign with flags until we could remove it.

A few months later, the North Korean bus we usually used to transport our workers to the nearest airport, 130 kilometers from the site, broke down. We wanted to use a KEPCO shuttle bus normally used inside our site area, but a problem arose; the offending word in the company name was painted on the side of the bus. We finally resorted to taping over some syllables to get permission for the trip, but one sharp-eyed boy in Hamhung, North Korea's second-largest city, saw through the disguise when the bus stopped for a rest break. "Hanguk! Hanguk!" he shouted incredulously as a local security guard on the bus climbed down to shoo him away.

A more serious problem arose when our North Korean counterparts summoned us to an "emergency" meeting last year. We had just finished a major road paving project around the site area, including the installation of about 9,000 reflectors along the sides and center of the roadway.

At the meeting, the North Koreans soberly informed us that there were many school children in the area who were studying English. These school children were shocked, they said - deeply shocked - because on the back of each reflector, in English, was the offending word "Hankuk." The reflectors would have to go. We KEDO folks gave each other a "what next?" look and withdrew to consider the situation. Indeed, the reflectors were made by a company called "Hankuk Cat's Eye," and although their catalog showed the words "Cat's Eye" on the rear of the reflectors, the shipment we had received was different, and had escaped the ideological scrutiny of the North Korean customs inspectors. (If you're feeling subversive, you can see the offending reflectors at www.roadstud.com.) We went through the motions of arguing the case, but in vain, of course; our workers spend several days grinding down the back sides of 9,000 reflectors embedded in the roads to remove the word.

The North's word choice generally has more history behind it; the word "Han" came into everyday use here only after World War II, when Seoul had to distinguish the new nation from its adversary to the north. "Hangeul," the Korean alphabet, was known as "eonmun" (minor characters) or "amgeul" (women's writing) during the Choson Dynasty.

Only about 1910 did a noted scholar, Ju Si-Gyeong, popularize the term "hangeul," according to Kim Sae-jung of the Korea Language Institute. Hanbok, the Korean traditional dress, is called Chosun ot (literally, "Chosun clothes") in the North; Korea's geographical location is the Chosun Bando (peninsula), not the Han Bando. That, of course, also accords with usage during the Choson Dynasty and the Japanese occupation.

I share the hope of Mr. Lee, Monday's columnist, that change will come in North Korea that would allow southerners to use the name of their own country. But in the North, ideology always trumps common sense, and cracks in the hermetically-sealed wall that keeps North Korean people from seeing the outside world would be very dangerous to the regime.

Poor Hankook Tire is still frozen out. In Thursday's edition of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition was an item saying that Kumho Industrial, not Hankook, had been asked by the DPRK to supply 3,300 of its tires to be used in a Mount Kumgang road rally.


The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by John Hoog

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