It’s all up to you, Ms. President-elect

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It’s all up to you, Ms. President-elect

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I called the apartment management company about a problem in my unit, and the office manager called me sajangnim, a commonly used title for the head of a company in Korea. “I am not a sajangnim, please don’t call me that,” I replied, knowing full well he had nothing else to call me. But I felt rather awkward. He was about my age, so he may have felt it inappropriate to call me by any other name. As a matter of fact, in Korean, nothing is as ambiguous as referring to someone in the second person.

When I go shopping, some young salespeople even call me father. My wife says that she has often heard, madam, mother, aunt, sister and “dear customer.” Sometimes, titles are replaced by “excuse me” or “here.”

In France, when you call a stranger, you simply say monsieur or madame. While madame designates a married woman, these days it is widely used to refer to single women. Titles based on marital status are considered discrimination against women. In English speaking countries, you would say “sir” to a man or “ma’am” to a woman.

In Korea, it is almost equally ambiguous how you call people in high positions - such as the president. Until the Kim Young-sam administration in the mid-1990s, presidents were called gakha, an appellation that carries the highest respect. But the next president, Kim Dae-joong, thought it sounded too authoritarian and asked to be called “Dear President.” While the title of gakha was jokingly used to refer to President Lee Myung-bak in terms of his principled, down-to-earth business style, he, in fact, had asked to be called simply “president,” minus the “dear.”

There are many different ways to refer to the president in the third person. In front of Park Chung Hee, he was called gakha, but when out of earshot, he was often called Park-Tong. The word “tong” came from dae-tong-ryeong, the Korean word for head of the government. President Roh Moo-hyun also was referred to as “Roh-Tong” or “Rohm-hyun” in a sarcastic and somehow derogatory manner.

President Lee Myung-bak is often called by his initials, MB, and Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-joong as “YS” and “DJ.” You can’t entirely ignore the delicate nuance of the sound of the nicknames, as “Lee-Tong” or “Kim-Tong” sounds a little bit strange or weird.

It was reported that President-elect Park’s transition committee has decided to refer to her as “Dear President” internally and “Madame President” officially. Since she is not married, some argue that “madame” is not an appropriate appellation. But calling her as “Madame President” appears suitable in any language in terms of diplomatic protocol. Just like Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland, Park may be called simply “president.” Though someone recommended “Ms. President,” the title sounds even less formal.

What should we call the first woman president of Korea when she is not around? She may be referred to as President Park, Park-Tong, Geun-hye, GH, Madame Park, Ms. Park and Miss Park.

Which one of these names will become the most commonly used title for her in the future? It all depends on how she serves her presidency.


The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo

By Bae Myung-bok

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