[The Fountain] A brief history of the K label

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[The Fountain] A brief history of the K label

The author is a national team reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Korea became known to the West through Arabian merchants during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). The Arabian merchants who traded with the Yuan dynasty, or the Mongol dynasty, frequently visited Byeokran Island in the estuary of Yeseong River near the capital of Gaegyeong, currently Kaesong city in North Korea.

Back then, Korea was called “Corea,” with a “C.” Even today, Korea is called ”Corée du Sud” in French and ‘Corea del Sur’ in Spanish. It demonstrates how Korea’s exchanges with Europe have become active since Goryeo.

Currently, Korea’s official Romanization is Korea with a “K.” There is a theory that Japan changed the English name because the letter “C” comes before Japan’s “J” during the Japanese colonial occupation.

But it is reasonable to say that Romance languages such as French and Spanish mainly use “C,” and West Germanic languages such as English and German prefer to use “K” instead of “C.”

In the 1950s, U.S. military officers stationed in South Korea liked to say “Korean time” to refer to how Koreans were often late for appointments.

After the 1997 foreign exchange crisis, the concept of the “Korea discount” appeared in overseas stock markets. It referred to how the stock prices of Korean companies were priced lower than those of foreign companies even when they grew at similar levels. The main reason was the geopolitical risk of a divided country.

What turned the negative connotation associated with Korea to positive was the global Korean wave that started in the early 2010s. PSY became the first Korean singer to enter the Billboard main chart with the famous song “Gangnam Style” in September 2012, signaling a global boom.

Since then, a series of new phrases have been coined using “K” for Korea — such as K-pop, K-drama, K-beauty, and K-food. In 2021, the Oxford English Dictionary defined ‘K-’ as a compound word that forms nouns related to Korea or its culture, posting 26 Korean words.

Now, some are asked whether they are tired of the K prefix. In an interview with BTS leader RM on March 12, Spanish media El Pais asked him, “Are you tired of the K-label?”

RM replied, “Actually, it’s a premium label,” adding, “It’s like a quality guarantee our ancestors have fought to earn.”

You should not overuse the K- prefix, but there is no need to devalue its significance, either.
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