Korean Crisis Glossary

All eyes in Asia are on North Korea this month as the worst crisis, or the worst rhetoric at least, in many years has triggered a fresh round of sanctions by the UN, even this time with the support of North Korea’s one ally, the PRC. As we take time to ruminate on visions of Seoul and Austin, TX bathed in fire, I’d like to offer a run-down of the key words and phrases in the news:

38th Parallel
The 38th Parallel has generally been the dividing line between northern and southern halves of the country. In Korean the line is called 북위 38, the bugwi 38 do. In hanja (Chinese characters), that’s 北緯三十八度, which means “North Parallel 38 degree”. Japanese is a bit simpler with 38 度線 (38どせん) or “38-degree line”. Chinese is the simplest: 三八线 (Trad. 三八線), sānbāxiàn, or “38-line”.

The actual dividing line between North and South is the DMZ, an English acronym for “Demilitarized Zone”. The DMZ was established in the 1953 armistice signed by North Korea, the PRC, and the United Nations and South Korean forces. Its Korean name is 한반도 비무장지대, hanbando bimujang jidae, which comes from the hanja 韓半島非武裝地帶. A direct translation is: Korea Peninsula No-Military-Equipment Land-Belt. But you can just call it the “DMZ”.

“Peninsula” is interesting. The English word comes from the Latin paene (“almost”) + īnsula (“island”). In Asia, a peninsula is a bit less, just half in fact. 半島 (Mandarin bàndăo, Korean bando/반도, and Japanese hantō/はんとう) means “half-island”.

The North’s nonchalance towards total isolation comes from its founding father’s policy of “self-reliance”. Kim Il-sung called his philosophy 주체사상, juchesasang, (hanja 主體思想), meaning “self-reliant thought”. It’s usually shortened in English to its first two syllables juche.

Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)
The vitriolic rodomontade of the Kim dynasty is delivered to you by the hard-working cadres of the Korean Central News Agency, which continues into the 21st century the breezy, light touch and nuance of Pravda in its heyday. Its name in Korean is 조선중앙통신, romanized Joseon Jung’ang Tongsin. In hanja that’s 朝鮮中央通信, a literal translation of which would be Korea Central Communications. The characters for “communications” (通信) here mean “transmitting-trust”, and if we can all trust what the KCNA is broadcasting, we’re in trouble.

Korean People’s Army
If KCNA reports are to believed, Seoul, Washington, DC, and Austin, Texas will all soon be awash in radioactive fire thanks to the 조선인민군, Joseon Inmin’gun, or Korea People’s Army. In hanja, that’s 朝鮮人民軍.

The Appomattox of Korea, Panmunjom is written 판문점 in hangul. The more  modern romanized spelling would end in –jeom, but we still use the version current in ’53. In hanja, the name is written 板門店, which means board-gate-store.

Republic of Korea Army
On the south side of the DMZ is the 대한민국 육군, Daehanminguk Yuk-gun, or 大韓民國 陸軍, whose literal translation would be Great Korea People’s Country Land Force.

Sacred war
How an officially atheist state mounts a “sacred war” only makes sense in the linguistic logic of Pyongyang, but that’s what the North is threatening. The word is 성전, seongjeon, or 聖戰.

Sea of flames
The North’s standard go-to phrase for “we’re going to kick your ass” is a threat to turn your town into a 불바다, bulbada, from bul (fire, flames) + bada (sea). Call me crazy, but after I saw Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film Oldboy (올드보이, oldeuboi) where the protagonist (spoiler alert!) cuts out his own tongue with a pair of scissors, a clean death by incineration hasn’t fazed me much. The Chinese press translates “sea of flames” as 火的海. In Japanese, it’s 火の海.

South Korean puppets
Politicians of all persuasions enjoy swapping insults, but die-hard communists have never really pulled it off with much verve or hipness. When Khrushchev pounded the desk of the UN with his shoe, even his homies back in Moscow thought it was lame. The North doesn’t rely much on classic Marxist put-downs like “reactionary” or “bourgeois” anymore, but insults that remind us of Shari Lewis and Lambchop aren’t intimidating. The phrase is 남조선 괴뢰, namjeoson georeo, 南朝鮮傀儡 . Back in Mao’s day, the bon mot to call your imperialist enemy was 资本主义的走狗 (Trad. 資本主義的走狗) zībĕnzhŭyì de  zǒugǒu or “running dog of capitalism”.

US Imperialists
While our South Korean friends are “puppets”, citizens of the US are “US Imperialists”. This is an interesting little contraction. The North is using the word 미제, mije, where mi comes from the Chinese word for the US (美國), pronounced miguk in Korean. The –je is the first part of the word jeguk (帝國), which means “empire”. 帝國 in both Simplified characters and in Japanese 新字体 is 帝国. Frank Lloyd Wright’s magnum opus in Tokyo was the original Imperial Hotel, the 帝国ホテル (Teikoku Hoteru).

United States Forces Korea (USFK)
Opposite the Korean People’s Army (조선인민군) and alongside the ROK Army (대한민국 육군) is a force of about 28,000 US soldiers called the 주한 미군, Juhan Migun. That’s  駐韓美軍. Japanese speakers will recognize the first character 駐 from “parking lot” signs (駐車所), so the phrase sort of looks and feels like “American Soldiers Parked in Korea”.

Korean for Beginners

Don’t get stuck in a sea of flames without it.

Yālù River
The dividing line between North Korea and the PRC is the Yalu River. Yalu is the Chinese pronunciation of  鸭绿江 (Trad. 鴨綠江), which is duck + green + river, although the character here for “green” is used only for pronunciation.  In Korean, the hanja would match the Traditional Chinese, but now it’s written in hangul 압록강 and pronounced Amrok-gang. To the Japanese, it’s the Ōryokukō (おうりょくこう).

I want to thank our author Kyubyong Park for his help with this list, and my raffle prize this week is a copy of the excellent, best-selling introduction to Korean he penned with writing partner Hal Amen, titled Korean for Beginners. If you’d like to win this book and brush up on your Korean, click here to email me and write “Crisis” in the subject line. I’ll announce a winner next week.