[OBSERVER]You say Coree, I say KoreaThe JoongAng Daily reported on Oct. 30 in its “About Korea” column that “Some nationalists say that the Japanese government changed the spelling [from Corea or Coree] to ‘Korea’ so that Japan precedes Korea in any alphabetical listing of the countries.”
Yes, some Koreans, nationalist or otherwise, do say that. But as it is such a manifestly foolish assertion, why would a responsible news medium repeat it? As a certain exasperated teenager of my acquaintance used to say to his parents, “Please, can we just try - just try - to be rational for one minute?”
The Japanese have many sins to answer for from the period when they colonized Korea, a period which lasted from 1910 to 1945. But it is not true that they systematically uprooted all Korean native species of plant life and replaced them with invasive Japanese species.
Read a few Korean shijo poems celebrating nature, and it is clear that the Korean landscape in the centuries before the Japanese occupation looked about the same as it does now, bar a few plants that might have been wiped out or mutated by carbon monoxide poisoning
And it is untrue to the point of being bizarrely so that they robbed Korea of its ancient and authentic name, Corea.
Isn’t it obvious? Koreans have their own alphabet. The proper spelling in hangul is the correct name. The name’s representation in Roman letters was for the convenience of foreigners who can’t read hangul.
But this form of linguistic ethnic cleansing gets more complicated.
South Koreans don’t actually call their country “Korea” (or “Corea”). Now they call it Hanguk. Before the Japanese colonial period they called it Joseon (using the current government-approved transliterations). “Korea” is something outsiders call this country.
(It is surprisingly common for countries to have many names. The people known to English-speakers as “Germans” are “Allemands” to the French, “Nemtsy” to the Russians and “Tedeschi” to the Italians. The citizens prefer none of these names but call themselves “Deutsche.”)
“Korea” derives from “Goryeo,” the name of the dynasty that ruled the Korean Peninsula from the 918 to 1392. This pre-Hangul name survived the fall of the dynasty because when the first European explorers and map makers showed up in the 16th and 17th centuries they were able to record the country’s name as “Coree” or Corea.”
But these cartographers were French and Portuguese, and they were bound by their own alphabets, which had no “K” but used “C” to represent the “K” sound. Later British and German maps used the “Korea” spelling because those alphabets have the letter “K.” It is strange indeed for Koreans to think that the quirks of European alphabets should have been responsible for an imperialist mutation of their country’s name.
Now about the machinations of the Japanese. The story as I have heard it told suggests that the spelling was changed from “Corea” to “Korea” in an Olympic year, so that the Japanese team would precede the Korean team during the patriotic tub-thumping of the opening ceremonies
This explanation forgets the meaning of colonialism. Because Korea had been annexed by Japan, it had no Olympic existence. Korean Olympians competed as Japanese. There was no spelling to fight over. Imagine that provincial hotheads in this country objected to the new Romanization rules for Korean established in 2000, because Cholla got changed to Jeolla, which follows “Hanguk” in the alphabet. The one is a province, the other a country; they don’t occupy the same lists.
The Japanese word for Korea, by the way, is “Chosen.” The Japanese call their own country “Nippon.” And the traditional Japanese word for Japan is “Zipangu.” I think we have to give up the idea that the Japanese are manic for alphabetical precedence.
Nevertheless, the myth spreads, and foreigners are helping it to propagate. Not long ago I was stopped by some Korean college students who were polling foreigners’ attitudes about Korea. Yes, I like it here. Yes, I think Koreans are friendly. Yes, I like kimchi. No, I don’t think war with North Korea is likely.
Craning my neck a bit, I saw the printed question list the young pollster was working with. It had “Corea,” “Coreans,” “North Corea.” (But not “cimchi.”) What’s this?
“Our teacher tells us to spell it this way.”
“She says it is the original spelling.”
“Your teacher is wrong. If you are speaking French, ‘Coree’ is the correct spelling, if you are speaking English, ‘Korea’ is correct. If you speak Korean, you spell it in hangul.”
This was greeted with polite incredulity, then: “But she is a foreigner, too.”
See, that ‘s what I like about Koreans. They think foreigners know more about Korea and the Korean language than they do themselves - except when they think foreigners know nothing at all about Korea.
So, fellow foreigners, let’s stop misleading Korean youth. Forget the fanciful Corea. Let Korea be Korea.
*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at Yonsei GSIS.
by Harold Piper