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Archive for August, 2003

Corea or Korea

Posted by Brian on August 6, 2003

Koreans are a credulous bunch. Their “groupthink” mentality makes it very easy for some crazy ideas to spread like wildfire and gain acceptance among the greater population. This means that a lot of Koreans will have some pretty wacky ideas, such as the belief that sleeping in a closed room with a fan on will kill you.

Another bit of widely-held nonsense is the belief that the original English spelling of “Korea” was “Corea,” and that it was changed by Japan during the colonial era to ensure that “Korea” came after Japan alphabetically. Here’s the Joongang Ilbo:

The word Korea is derived from one of Korea’s ancient dynasties, Goryeo. It was during the Goryeo Dynasty when the country became known to the West.

In days gone by, because of Spanish influence, it was called “Coree” or “Corea.” During the Japanese colonial period, the spelling was arbitrarily changed to Korea because alphabetically Corea preceded Japan. Since then, Korea became an official name in the international community.

And this is from Goldsea, an Asian-American resource site:

Japan’s annexation of Corea didn’t become formal until 1910, but for all practical purposes Japan had become the power that regulated Corea’s relations with the outside world in 1897 when it defeated China in a war over Japan’s ambition to exercise control over Corea. The only other power willing to contest Japan’s supremacy in the Corean peninsula was Russia. When it was easily defeated by Japan at Port Arthur in 1905, the annexation of Corea became a fait accompli. Anxious to avoid a costly Pacific conflict, President Wilson ignored the pleas of a delegation of Corean patriots and their American missionary supporters and turned a blind eye to Japan’s acts of formal annexation and colonization of Corea. During that period Japan mounted a campaign to push for the “Korea” useage by the American press. Why? For one of Japan’s prospective colonies to precede its master in the alphabetical lineup of nations would be unseemly, Japanese imperialists decided.

And here’s Lee Jung-ha, PhD, in an article written for Igoo.com, a Korean-American site:

When the Japanese occupied Korea in 1910 (in fact, decades before, since Japan was active internationally and Korea was a “Hermit Kingdom” clinging to isolationism against the West), Japan changed it into Korea, because C would come before J, but J would come before K, and they did not want ever to follow behind Koreans in any international stage. Not only at meetings, but in any international order, publications, index, flags displays, etc. etc. Subsequently, Japan occupied Korea for 35 years, and of course, the name “Korea” stuck with us ever since.

This issue pops up every now and then, usually on nationalist websites in their bogus surveys they do, but its latest appearance is at the behest of Korean lawmaker, Kim Seong-ho.

According to the Korea Herald, Kim submitted a resolution to the National Assembly making “Corea” the official name of South Korea, and hopes to work with North Korean activists on making the change happen.

Kim’s argument is that:

  1. The use of “Corea” has a longer history than “Korea.” To support this claim, he points to old European manuscripts and maps that use the “Corea” spelling to describe the Korean peninsula.
  2. Using the “Corea” spelling is more faithful to the English language itself, citing other nations with a “C” spelling, such as Canada, Cambodia, Comanche, and the Congo. And…
  3. The spelling “Korea” comes from Japanese colonialists and should rightly be rejected.

His premises are all faulty. Point by point…

  1. Technically, this is true, but by his own argument, he’s only trading one vestige of hard-imperialism (the spelling “korea” by the big, bad Japanese) for an older vestige of soft-imperialism (European mapmakers deciding for Korea how its name should be spelled). If he was really sincere, he’d argue for a spelling such as Koryo, which is more-or-less pure Korean and the basis for all this Corea/Korea nonsense.
  2. The four countries mentioned all got their “C’s,” through either French influence (Congo, Canada, Cambodia), or Spanish influence (Comanche). This makes sense,as the romance languages spell a hard “k” sound with a “c,” which is why countries like Italy and Mexico still refer to Korea as Corea. In no way does it “prove” any so-called English rule about spelling the names of countries, as I’m sure anyone from Kazakhstan, Kenya, or Kuwait will tell you.
  3. This idea that Japan changed Korea’s name just to ensure that Japan would come first at the Olympics is just rubbish. This “theory” is banded about a lot, but I’ve yet see any hard evidence proving it (you know, like official-looking Japanese documents). It’s simply an urban legend among many Koreans who are always quick to accept any story that paints the Japanese as the bad guys.

How did Korea get its modern name then? My guess is that it’s a direct result of the rise of English and the fall of French in international relations. If French was still the world’s lingua franca, then it’s quite likely that Korea would be known as Corea the world over. But that isn’t how it turned out.

Of course, Koreans can change their name to whatever they want, but encouraging ridiculous fairy tales about the country’s name is not the way to go about it.

Once again, Korea chooses to be victims of the Japanese, when they could just as easily move on and direct their energies into more useful channels.


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