Don't call it a spade
The Past and Future of Korea
So Trump just met Marshall or Chairman or whatever Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
I don’t have any opinion on the meeting. Nothing substantial was agreed on. Seems to me nothing real happened at all. North Korea isn’t going to give away its nukes. And USG isn’t going to withdraw its troops from South Korea. Thus, nothing is going to happen.
The reasoning is quite simple. At the end of the day, North Korea is a small, poor, fairly inconsequential country 25 million people. It’s birth rate appears to be close to 2, more than double that of South Korea, but still, it hardly matters at all.
Yes, it has nukes. But why would it give them away? Gaddafi gave them away. He was killed shortly after, as the evil fat women USG likes to employ laughed about it. No way North Koreans with their 105 IQ are going to surrender their nukes. Not a good idea.
Unless USG packs and leaves South Korea, leaving the degenerate land of barren K-pop whores and their long legs achieved through horrendous surgery open to domination by Kim Jong Uns soldiery. That would be a reasonable deal.
Which is not going to happen. The US military, or more precisely the military-industrial complex, as President Eisenhower put it, is today about half of the US power structure. It funds the larger part what Moldbug called Redgov, the Republican party and its appendixes. Redgov is the Pentagon and its friends. The US military being in South Korea means a lot of public money, a lot of budgets, a lot of salaries that US generals do not want to lose. These guys aren’t going anywhere. The US military just doesn’t leave unless forced to.
And certainly not today, when official doctrine is that China is America’s Strategic Rival. We are in Cold War 2. Google it, it’s already a thing. America is preparing for decades of juicy budgets to counter China and fight it in all fronts, so long as nukes aren’t involved. Having troops in Seoul, 900 km from Beijing is just too good to just leave. It’s an amazingly good strategic position. Not a single GI is going to leave, even if Trump really thinks he’s getting a Noble Peace Prize, Which he isn’t. Trump does not rule over the US military, and that is that.
So again, my prediction is: nothingburger. China will lift economic sanctions over North Korea, the US won’t, after Trump is gone USG will pressure China over North Korea’s failure to denuclearize, and we’ll be back to square 1. I really hope Temasek is getting some mining concession in Hamgyeong or the 20 million spent on this summit are going to look bad in Singapore’s tightly held accounting books.
So all that said, I figured I might as well write a bit about how Koreans talk about themselves. We all talk about North Korea and South Korea. But surely you don’t believe North and South Koreans talk of themselves like that? Of course not. North and South are just geographical adjectives we, ignorant foreigners use to make sure we know where each government is located. But the guys in the ground have access to millennia of history to come up with nice sounding words to justify their claim to power. After all, both Koreas claim to be the legal government of the whole territory. So of course they don’t call themselves “North” or “South” anything. They call themselves the whole thing.
What thing, though? Surely they don’t call themselves the same name? In English they do. The South is “Republic of Korea” while the North is the “Democratic People’s… Republic of Korea”. But that’s not how it works in Korean.
Or may I say in Chinese, as Korean political words are almost exclusively Chinese words adopted in Korean, and that includes their own toponyms. All place names in Korean, North and South, with the very overt exception of Seoul, are Chinese derived words. That includes the name of the country, the names of all provinces and all cities. Most interesting of course is the name of the country, as that changes the most. Chinese-inspired polities tend to change the name of the state every time the dynasty changed. Modern Republics kinda count as dynasties, a fact which is often a matter of jokes, especially in China. The name of the country thus says a lot about the people who founded the government.
South Korea calls itself 大韓民國, 대한민국, Dae Han Min Guk. The first letter, ‘dae’ in korean, means big. The second, ‘Han’, is a proper name. Min-guk here is literally “common-people’s country”. It’s an early Chinese rendering of the concept of “republic”, and a rather elegant one. So South Korea is, literally “Republic of Great Han”. On everyday speech it is shortened to 韓國,한국 Han Guk, Han Guo in Chinese, Kan Koku in Japanese. “Han-land”, sorta.
What is ‘Han’ though? Note that this Han has nothing to do with the Han of China’s main ethnic group. That one is written 漢. South Korea is 韓. Zoom in, you’ll see they’re different. 漢韓. Tones are different in Chinese. No tones in Korean, so they do pronounce them the same, but such is life in China’s area of linguistic influence.
So anyway, the Chinese letter which is now used by South Koreans to refer to themselves goes back to the Han state in warring-states era China, which was born of the dismembering of the Jin state in 403 BC. The Han state was somewhere between southern Shanxi and northern Henan in today’s China, and while it wasn’t one of the powerful warring states, it did give us the great philosopher Han Fei.
Actually one can track the word back to an even earlier state, or rather a small fief given by the early Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC) to one of the many sons of the Zhou founder (the Warrior King, Wu Wang), which was located in… 韩城, the city of Han, which still exists to this very day, a small mountain town on the west bank of the Yellow River. Shaanxi province. Small towns having the same name for 3,000 years is one of the joys of the Chinese writing system.
So what does a Bronze Age walled town in the middle Yellow River have to do with post-WW2 South Korea? Their names are written exactly the same, 韓國. But that’s about it. Obviously China’s Bronze Age river town has precedence. 3,000 years worth of it. So why did South Korea took its name from it? That’s a bit complicated, and fairly stupid if you ask me. Let me explain.
Korea is one of the countries with the least complicated history on earth. The country adopted Chinese statecraft early on, but Korean dynasties on average last longer than Chinese ones. Chinese states if lucky lasted at most 250 years. While the last two Korean dynasties lasted 500 years each (!). I think that’s a record.
So anyway, as a unified kingdom Korea starts being a thing in 668. The first kingdom was called Silla 新羅 (668-935), ruled by the Kim family, then came Goryeo 高麗 (918-1392),obviously the origin of the Western name, ruled by the Wang family. And then came Joseon 朝鮮 (1392-1897), ruled by the Li family.
As in China, a new dynasty changed the name of the country. So where did those names come from? Silla was the original name of a state in the South-west of the Korean peninsula. It then grew, and a smart alliance with Tang China got him the rest of the peninsula by 668. Nobody knows the origin of the name, nor much at all besides that it was probably pronounced as “Sila” or “Sira” back then. Perhaps it meant something like “big city”, which links to modern Korean “Seoul”.
Silla was replaced by Goryeo, which got its name from the great kingdom of Goguryeo, a kingdom which was born in today’s southern Manchuria in 37 BC, but eventually grew to conquer most of the northern Korean peninsula. They also founded Pyongyang, such as it was. As it happens the little evidence we have of Goguryeo’s language suggests that it’s more related to Japanese than to Korean, but it was a kickass warrior kingdom that everybody remembered fondly. And so when Silla was overthrown, new Wang family dynasty, who claimed descent from them, chose to recover the name for their new state.
So then after a good and eventful 500 years the Goryeo dynasty collapses, and it is replaced by a coup launched by this guy called Yi Seong-gye. The background here is that as the Mongol Yuan dynasty, which ruled both China and Korea, collapsed, the recovered Goryeo dynasty tried to take advantage of the civil war chaos to win more territory from China. Yi Seong-gye was a Goryeo general, and he received the orders to attack Chinese armies. He thought it was a pretty stupid idea, so he came with a better one: he’d make peace with the Chinese armies and go invade the Korean capital instead. So he crossed the Korean Rubicon, and installed himself as new king in 1392.
Then he asked the newly founded Ming dynasty China if they’d recognize him, which of course they did gladly. He was the nice guy who had chosen to ally with them instead of attacking their armies. He then asked the Ming emperor to choose a name, out of a couple ideas, and the Ming First Emperor chose for him 朝鮮 조선 Joseon. Which is the name of a small kingdom, theoretically located around today’s Pyongyang, which had payed fealty to the Zhou Dynasty way back in 1046 BC. So Bronze Age, again. The name was both ancient, Korean, and it symbolized the good relations with big bro China, and so Joseon it was.
So let’s go forward again 500 years (how did Korean dynasties last so long I really have no idea). It’s 1897, and the Joseon Dynasty is still around. Yi Heui is the 26th king in a straight line of Joseon kings. But it’s 1897 already, it’s the apogee of Western Imperialism, and it’s also 2 years after the First Sino-Japanese war. That war was launched by Japan explicitly with the aim of making Korea ‘independent’ from China. And Japan won, so it behooved Korea to take concrete steps to cut its traditional ties with China. Ties which had given it its name back in 1392. It took 2 years to convince the Korean king, who thought like many in Korea thought it was absurd to pretend to be diplomatically equal to China. Those 2 years included a series of coups, the murder of his queen, and an escape to the Russian embassy. But eventually in 1897 the Korean king made his mind. Same dynasty, of course, but new regime. And so new name.
What name to take, though? He couldn’t ask China for one again. And he was still the king of the old dynasty, so he couldn’t use his family heritage or something. He had to choose a new name out of the blue. And so after a while the Korean king, or I guess some of his ministers, came up with some old historical name which could fit the bill.
The original name, Joseon, had come from a Bronze Age Kingdom. Well, “kingdom”, more like some chieftain and a couple hundred serfs. Way later in Korean history, around the first century AD, Chinese historians talk of a series of small chiefdoms in the southern half of the Korean peninsula. Specifically they talked of three: Mahan, Byeonhan and Jinhan. The “han” part of the names was written phonetically, using different Chinese letters which sound like /han/, but eventually, and for no good reason, Chinese historians settled in using the letter 韓, which as I mentioned before refers originally to a fairly old Chinese fiefdom, and later a middle sized kingdom. It also happens to be a common surname. As for why those Korean kingdoms were called ‘something-han’, it’s anyone’s guess. The best scholarly theory seems to be that ‘han’ comes from the same root as Mongolian ‘khan’, i.e. boss.
So anyway, the reasoning here seems to be that the Korean king wanted a new name, he looked at the history books, couldn’t find any name which hadn’t been used before or that had any bad connotation, so eventually settled with this word which was kinda Korean so “anyway let’s get done with this already gentlemen I didn’t want to do this on the first place can I go home now?”. The name chosen was 大韓帝國,대한제국Dae Han Je Guk, “Great Han Empire”. ‘Empire’ being also the formal titles of China and Japan and the time. So, equality, independence.
That was 1897. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea anyway and thought the whole thing was stupid. Under Japanese rule Korea was used by its previous name, Joseon (Chosen in Japanese). North Korea, being communist and down to earth, also calls itself Joseon. Well, the Democratic People’s Republic of Joseon. China calls North Korea Chaoxian, which is the Mandarin pronunciation of Joseon.
South Korea though as a liberal democratic country had to do the virtue signaling thing, so they chose to signal that South Korea was a return to how things were just before the Japanese invaded. Just without the king. So South Korea chose the exact same name chosen back in 1897. Just changed a letter, “emperor” for “people”. So instead of 大韓帝國,대한제국 it’s 大韓民國 대한민국.
And that’s the name today. South Korea has this weird ahistorical name, born of lazy Chinese historiography two millennia ago, but with a rich narrative of independence and victimization. North Korea just keeps the old name of the 1392-1897 dynasty. China and Japan call each country by their chosen names. But of course North and South Korea *themselves* don’t recognize the other’s right to exist, so they call it by their own chosen names + north or south. South Korea calls North Korea, 北韓 북한 Buk Han “North Han”, while North Korea calls the South 南朝鮮 남조선 Nam Joseon “South Joseon”. China used to follow North Korean usage, not anymore.
Amusingly Taiwan and Hong Kong mostly follow South Korean usage, as good fellow USG vassals.
And yes, the Korean script, “Hangul” is Han-gul, Han letters. In the North is, you guessed it, Joseon-gul.
Long story short: history is fun, languages are different, and the difference allows for different ways of doing what everybody wants to do anyway: fight.