News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

Breaking the occupation spell

Some Koreans see putdown in letter change in name

SEOUL -- Is alphabetical order destiny?

Yes, say Korean scholars and politicians who have begun a drive to change the official English-language name of their country to Corea.

The seemingly arcane campaign is based on an increasingly prevalent belief that the original spelling with the letter C was switched to Korea by the Japanese at the start of their 1910-45 occupation of the peninsula, so that their colonial subjects would not precede them in the English alphabetical hierarchy.

The controversy used to be fodder only for linguists and historians, but lately the debate has become political. Last month, 22 South Korean legislators introduced a resolution in the National Assembly calling for the government to adopt the Corea spelling, the first time an official proposal has been made in South Korea.

North and South Korean scholars, who rarely agree on much, also held an unusual joint conference last month in Pyongyang, the North's capital, and resolved to work together for a spelling change. They hope it can be accomplished in time for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, when the estranged countries intend to field a joint team.

"Scholars who have studied this more deeply than I believe it was part of the legacy of Japanese imperialists to eradicate our culture," said Kim Sung Ho, a South Korean legislator who was one of the sponsors of the new resolution.

Most evidence supporting the claim is circumstantial. English books and maps published through the 19th century generally spelled the country's name as Corea, as did the British government in laying the cornerstone of its embassy in Seoul in 1890. But some time in the early 20th century, the spelling Korea began to be seen more frequently than Corea, a change that coincided with Japan's consolidation of its control of the peninsula.

Chung Yong Wook, a historian at Seoul National University, says that the Japanese, who controlled the peninsula four years before officially colonizing it in 1910, changed the name by the time of the 1908 Olympics in London, so that Japan would come ahead in the ordering of athletes. But the closest thing he has found to a smoking gun is a 1912 memoir by a Japanese colonial official that complained of the Koreans' tendency "to maintain they are an independent country by insisting on using a C to write their country's name."

"I am sure, though, if the Japanese archives were opened, you would find much more evidence to support the claim that the name was changed," Chung said.

The North Koreans have embraced the movement to restore the spelling Corea with much more enthusiasm than their counterparts in the South. Following the conference Aug. 21 at Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University, the North Korean news agency KCNA referred to the current spelling as "a never-to-be-condoned, state-sponsored crime."

Lee Sang Tae, a South Korean government historian who attended the Pyongyang conference, pointed out that North Korea, unlike South Korea, has not yet received reparations from Japan for the occupation and therefore might want to add the spelling issue to its damage claims. On the other hand, he said, the South Korean government is unlikely to opt for a spelling change simply because of the burden of changing so many official documents.

"A preliminary survey indicated that it would be extremely expensive," said Lee, who helped campaign to get the South Korean government to officially recognize the Sea of Japan as the East Sea.

In South Korea, support for the spelling change has come mostly from the young. During last year's World Cup soccer tournament, held in Japan and South Korea, the South Korean fan club known as the Red Devils waved banners reading "COREA," as well as "Allez Coree!" and "Forza Corea!" using French and Italian, respectively, because those languages also spell the name with a C.

Like many a campaign in this heavily wired nation, this one is being waged over the Internet. An online poll on one popular portal found that 69.4 percent of respondents favored a spelling change and that 27.4 percent were opposed.

Those opposed have suggested sarcastically that Korea pick a new name that begins with the letter A and thus advance in the alphabetical ranks. Or, conversely, they suggest that a rival country change its name to "Zapan."

"Has it ever occurred to Koreans that they've been duped by an urban legend?" wrote one critic on an English-language site. "That Japan would change the spelling so that it comes after in English is laughable. This seems like an invented story by some who have too much time on their hands."

The debate is moot in the Korean language, which has an entirely different alphabet.

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months