Shockingly, Kim Jong Un calls South Korea by its official name

North Koreans say Kim's use of 'Republic of Korea' is a display of respect, but experts see it as mockery.
By Son Hyemin for RFA Korean
2023.09.08
Shockingly, Kim Jong Un calls South Korea by its official name North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the training command post of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army (KPA), at an undisclosed location in North Korea, in this picture taken on Aug. 29, 2023 and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 3. Blurring in photo is from source.
AFP/KCNA via KNS

UPDATED September 8, 2023, 10:58 a.m. ET

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently slammed South Korea for participating in joint military exercises with the United States, but his choice of words shocked and confused his people. 

He referred to the South as “Daehan Minguk,” the “Republic of Korea” – its official name – instead of the usual term used for its southern neighbor, “South Choson.”

“We must thoroughly respond to the military exercises of the American and ‘Republic of Korea’ military gangsters,” Kim was quoted in state media as saying last month while visiting a top-level military facility. 

Many North Koreans were baffled, viewing his phrasing as a breach of ideological dogma – and even a sign of respect for a place frequently derided as a de-facto American colony.

“When he called South Korea ‘Daehan Minguk,’ many elderly people reacted, saying that ‘The Republic of Korea must be a strong country,’” a resident of North Pyongan province told Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Kim’s wording made them think “it might be because South Korea is prosperous,” she said.

What’s in a name?

The term Kim used for “Korea” is key to understanding the significance.

As with so much on the Korean peninsula, language reflects a shared history and culture divided by politics.

North and South Korea use different words in their names that are both translated as “Korea” when rendered in English – “Choson” in the North and “Hanguk” in the South. 

Both terms have been used by previous governments, but use of one term or the other is often seen as a political statement.

ENG_KOR_ROK_09052023.2.jpg
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the training command post of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army (KPA), at an undisclosed location in North Korea, in this picture taken on Aug. 29, 2023 and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 3. Blurring in photo is from source. Credit: AFP/KCNA via KNS

Because the North and South both claim to be the only legitimate government on the peninsula, they almost always use their own name to refer to the whole peninsula. 

So North Koreans call the South “South Choson,” and South Koreans typically call the North “North Han.”

“Choson,” if used in the South, is almost exclusively to refer to a historical period, the 1392-1897 Choson Dynasty. 

Use of “Hanguk” in the North to refer to the South, however, is sometimes even a punishable offense.

And here Kim was using the full official name, “Daehan Minguk” – which, when literally translated, means the “Great Korean [Han] People’s Country” – to refer to the South.

Deeper meaning?

That perplexed North Koreans accustomed to the South being described as a puppet regime of the United States.

“Seeing that the South was called by its official name, Daehan Minguk, some are now saying that [North Korea] is admitting that it is outclassed by South Korea’s military power,” said a woman who lives in South Pyongan province.

For some, use of the term was seen as a sign that reunification could occur soon, she said. 

“Intellectuals such as university graduates said that they think that the reason why the leadership called South Korea as Daehan Minguk seems to be because South Korea is an economic powerhouse,” the South Pyongan resident said. 

“So it is not possible to compete with their system,” she said. “It seems to be an intention to go for unification.”

Mockery

But some experts viewed Kim’s use of Daehan Minguk as a form of mockery.

“This has the nuance of a disparaging remark, like the ‘so-called Republic of Korea,’" Cho Han Bum of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification, told RFA

“Chairman Kim Jong Un may have used the term ‘Daehan Minguk’ this time, but North Korea continues to use expressions like ‘the puppets in the South,’ or the ‘group of traitors’ when talking about [the administration of South Korean President] Yoon Suk Yeol. 

Also, the state media reports put the term in quotation marks.

North Korea uses a lot of quotation marks when they write expressions about something they don't acknowledge, said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Department of Unification Strategy Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul.

"It sure seems like it was written with hostility, but we have no proof that it was,” he said.

Ken Gause of the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses think tank told RFA that it might be part of efforts by Kim Jong Un to normalize the North Korean state and to that end, redefining how the South is viewed.

I think that he is starting to look at the relationship on the peninsula between the two Koreas in a slightly different way and probably using the official name of South Korea as opposed to, you know, calling it a puppet of this or that is it is just a different way of approaching the situation,” said Gause. “But, we really need more evidence to kind of really put a finer point on why he may be using this sort of language at this time.”

It may also have been just a way to draw attention to his criticism of the South as gangsters, Gause said.

“It may not be something more profound … we're going to need to have more evidence … to be able to put it in the context of what it means in the bigger picture.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

Updated to add comments from Ken Gause.

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