Bloody shovel

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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.

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30 responses to “The Past and Future of Korea

  1. Pingback: The Past and Future of Korea | @the_arv

  2. August Hurtel June 14, 2018 at 22:35

    There hasn’t been a mention of withdrawing from the South. If anything, we would need to go North, because we need to verify de-nuclearization, plus the renovation of an entire country requires boots (even if it is mostly construction boots) on the ground.

    I think Kim feels a lot of pressure because the old game doesn’t work, and it’s not clear he ever really wanted to play it. His people are starving and rattling the sabers every so often just doesn’t work anymore.

    I also think that the U.S. government has basically ignored NK since the armistice. They never would sit down with NK reps. Instead, there was this multi-lateral sort of deal where NK might be allowed to the table, but wasn’t being treated as an equal.

    So Trump just gave them the respect they allegedly have been looking for since the war. How important was it to them? We will find out.

    • Xwarper @ purpleboxx.wordpress.com July 10, 2018 at 02:40

      Kim is in a desperate situation. He’s playing party games in his capital while his nation wilts around him. The end-game of America is the same as it is anywhere in the world: Free Enterprise & Free Democracy, Coca Colca in the hands of the voting masses. America has been pushing for these as far back as the Monroe Doctrine, when it Dole-ized Central America and points south.

      Kim will change when given a strong incentive — either a fist around his throat, or a way to gracefully join South Korea’s power structure and live it up “legally.”

  3. i Zen June 14, 2018 at 23:26

    Do they really do those plastic operations with legs? I mean cutting it in half and inserting something no lengthen? Or how do they do it? Crazy!

    • spandrell June 15, 2018 at 12:45

      I believe they make a series of small cuts and then wait for the bone to grow longer.

      • gkai June 15, 2018 at 14:02

        Gattaca will show you an example…
        Good movie BTW….especially when you second-though about it, trying to see things not only from the main protagonist perspective (which examplify the equalist/Disney idea: you can do everything if you try enough).
        The movie itself is more ambiguous that it seems, at first it seems a classic critique of an oppressive eugenist society. After you see it’s much more subtle, with no clear bad guys, and a quite convincing depiction on how eugenics was started and practically works, far from the nazi-tainted classic depiction….

      • reezy June 19, 2018 at 04:51

        That’s hard to believe. The complication rate for leg bone lengthening surgery is unreasonably high, which disqualifies it as an effective path for those wishing to pursue the kpop star career. Koreans are at least as tall as northern Han Chinese, so simply selecting for the top 2 to 3 s.d. of females in terms of leg length should be more than enough.

  4. Pingback: The Past and Future of Korea | Reaction Times

  5. Pingback: Let's Review 88: The wrong one of the progressive demi-gods is dead - American Digest

  6. sfoil June 15, 2018 at 01:56

    The Koreans use 漢 for the name of the river that runs through Seoul. There probably isn’t any better reason for it, although that usage is much older.

    Disarmament for withdrawal isn’t going to happen; even if both sides wanted it (they don’t), verification is impossible. There are a number of relatively painless concessions that could be made to arrest proliferation though. Some sort of economic development agreement is possible too, partly because I think KJU actually wants his country to get richer and partly because his lineage had an extensive history during the Cold War of playing USSR and PRC off each other for the economic benefit. “Gee, Xi, we’d really love to grant that mining lease to Shenhua, but we’ve got this great offer from our brothers to the south…”

  7. Dividualist June 15, 2018 at 08:49

    I think getting rid of nukes vs. getting rid of American troops were only the best-case goals of the relevant sides. The acceptable case goals are 1) KJU stops the aggressive posturing and generating international tension and normalizes relations with SK and Japan 2) Trump elevates the status of a country/leader that had international pariah status, giving them recognition and a bit of prestige.

    I think these were achieved.

    • spandrell June 15, 2018 at 12:46

      Relations with SK have always been good, as long as SK had a leftist president and paid tribute, which happens every cycle or so. Relations with Japan are not fixable.

      I don’t know what “status” means here. Sanctions are still there, won’t be lifted until KJU gives something real on denuclearization, which is unlikely.

  8. Duke of Qin June 15, 2018 at 21:28

    Sub 1.0 national fertility.

    Like Taiwan, Korea has no future.

  9. Duke of Qin June 15, 2018 at 21:46

    In regards as to why historic Korean dynasties were more enduring, my pet theory on that is simply that the stakes were lower. Being the King of Korea is nice and all, but it really doesn’t engage the cutthroat competitive instincts that being master over a true empire does.

    Being the Son of Heaven didn’t guarantee continued legitimacy. There was theologically speaking, nothing that precluded any number of contenders emerging from the military aristocracy or rebel warlord from making a go at it. Rome was even worse (better?) in this regard in that dynasties were lucky to last 2 generations since more than a third of Roman emperor’s died by assassination alone and barely a quarter ended up dying of natural causes.

    • maieuticinitiate June 16, 2018 at 07:15

      Probably the fact that the Korean King was a tributary of the Chinese Emperor dissuaded pretenders from rising up; unless the pretender signaled their loyalty to China more than the ruler, which was the case of the first Joseon guy.

      • spandrell June 16, 2018 at 11:04

        Yes, the nature of the tributary relationship meant the window of opportunity was only open when a Chinese dynasty itself had collapsed; and even then if a Korean king was smart he could close down that window effectively.

  10. Rollory June 16, 2018 at 15:28

    “While the last two Korean dynasties lasted 500 years each (!). I think that’s a record.”

    The Capetian dynasty of France lasted 802 years, if one doesn’t count the post-Revolution restoration. Hugh Capet succeeded in an uncontested manner to the last Carolingian who died without issue; if one counts that as part of the same political entity you get a clean millennium of unbroken Schelling-point authority.

    The Norman Conquest of England happened in 1066; with the exception of Cromwell, the head of state has been part of the same family ever since. (The Glorious Revolution involved replacing a king with his nephew.) I’ve seen claims that every English monarch ever can trace their ancestry back to Cerdic of Wessex; I can’t verify that right now, but it’s of interest because there’s reason to think Cerdic was the historical King Arthur.

    And of course the Japanese imperial family line has never been broken, but you know that and maybe you mean actual political control.

    Anyway, very interesting piece, thank you.

    • j June 16, 2018 at 20:03

      Re: when did norman rule end in england ? 1485 when the last French king was killed by the Welshman Henry Tudor . What is the meaning of “family” as in one family ruled England since Cedric?

      • maieuticinitiate June 16, 2018 at 23:38

        Counting dynasty lengths is always tricky. Do we count cadet dynasties? Do we count descendants after the extinction of the male line? (Habsburg to Habsburg-Lorraine)
        Because if we’re not strict, turns out that the Mughal Emperors starting with Jahan Shah were descendants of Charlemagne, the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII and the Persian Safavid Shah Ismail I.

    • ErisGuy July 8, 2018 at 14:49

      Rurik Dynasty in contention here, too.

  11. mitchellporter June 17, 2018 at 07:45

    I think you’re wrong about things going back the way they were. Kim has discovered he can travel and be treated like a statesman. Trump thinks he has a chance of bringing *both* Koreas into America’s orbit. The Koreas may attempt some kind of competitive symbiosis.

  12. uarbes June 21, 2018 at 19:49

    If NK stops being a visible hotspot (simply gets out of the news) and Trump & Kim share a peace nobel price, perhaps, what´s not to like about it?

    NK is of zero importance, really, if it were not for the most deluded faction of the (bipartisan) US war party.

  13. Rhetocrates June 23, 2018 at 14:42

    I’m not convinced KJU is actually in control of the DPRK.

    I’ve searched fairly exhaustively for a link to back all this up and come up dry, as you often do for something marginal you saw on the Internet a few years ago. So you’ll have to take this analysis on faith (or just ignore it).

    Long story short, it appears from picture and scant political evidence that the Ministry for State Security is making/has made a power play against the Kim family upon the accession of KJU. This is based upon the scrambling around and disappearance of several important people, previously powerful heads of other ministries (and the MSS itself) who had strong ties of loyalty to KJI and KJU, testimony of an un-named agent apparently involved in the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, and what I think very important differences in behaviour at high Party Meetings. Used to be, KJI would sit in the centre of the Party meeting on a raised dais and be treated like a god. His word was law, and everyone hung on his least utterance. Anyone absent without a very good reason, or showing the least amount of inattention during the hours-long meetings, or God forbid showing anything but the most craven yes-man behaviour, would be tortured and disappeared with his whole family.

    Compare to pictures (circa 2014, if I remember) of KJU at Party meetings: he still sits in the centre, but roughly a third of the seats are empty, and quite a few of the attendees are effectively goofing off while he speaks – reading documents or books, and in a few cases doing what looks like holding quiet separate conversations.

    Now, a lot of that info’s old, and of course without sourcing not particularly trustworthy. But it should also be noted that KJU keeps apparently giving his sister, now head of the MSS, more and more autonomy, and that he was educated in a Swiss boarding school (whereas his father, for example, was educated either in Pyongyang or somewhere in the PRC), which means KJU is tainted by the West.

    Plus, remember, they’ve demonstrated that they have both nuclear capability and orbital rocketry, which means theoretically they could strike many portions of the globe, if they can put together another rocket. So the old dynamic of ‘appeasing the Norks to avoid a nuclear peninsula’ is now off the table.

    We may very well be seeing the outward effects of radical differences in internal Nork politics, where the Kim family are becoming figurehead deities rather than god-kings.

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