[Commentary] Koguryo or Goguryeo ?

One of our national traits seems to be that we are used to living with problems, rather than trying to overcome or remove them. In the latest example, our diplomats agreed to deal with the history dispute with China through academic exchanges. This is truly absurd. They should have said China must stop claiming one of our ancient kingdoms as theirs, instead of agreeing to discuss with them why it is ours.

The so-called "academic exchanges," proposed in the loosely-worded memo of "understanding" between senior diplomats of the two countries in Seoul last week, can be a fatal booby trap for Korea in the predictably long and precarious conflict. To make a long story short, there are only a dozen or so historians in all South Korea who earned doctorate degrees for the study of Goguryeo. Forming a joint front with North Korea, which inherits part of the old territory of the warrior state, does not appear to be promising, if not impossible. Relations with the North remain as fragile as ever, let alone Pyongyang`s heavy dependence on China`s support - economic and otherwise.

The proposed academic exchanges will inevitably bring to light the drawbacks in our Romanization system, ahead of all other problems. The two different Romanized names of the ancient kingdom - Goguryeo and Koguryo - are already puzzling, and drawing complaints from a number of scholars and journalists. The problem is the confusion is totally unnecessary, if few consider it a major disaster.

Looking back, the chaos has been expected since the previous administration introduced the current system in 2000, replacing the McCune-Reischauer system. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism under former president Kim Dae-jung ignored the nearly unanimous objections from everyone with any working knowledge in transcription and the use of Romanized Korean proper names and terms for communication.

Simply put, the new system, a partial modification of the old Education Ministry system discarded back in 1984, largely converts letters of the Hangul script, not the sounds of our language, into the Roman alphabet. This is a fundamental flaw of the system devised by the chauvinistic linguists at the National Academy of Korean Language. Anyone who understands why nations need standard Romanization systems at all should know this is absolutely strange.

An unprincipled mix of transcription and transliteration for transmitting the sounds and written images of Korean words, the new system faced objections from the media, long-time foreign residents here, and overseas academics. But the government turned a deaf ear to all this. Shim Jae-kee, then Seoul National University professor of Korean linguistics who headed the project as director of the NAKL, refuted, "The Korean language belongs to the Korean people. Korea has reached a point where its Romanization system has to be developed for the benefit of Koreans. While in Rome, do as the Romans do." Thus the crippled system, intended to "preserve the unique character of the Korean language and its cultural background and to help digitalize information in Korean language," was forced upon local administrations around the country so they would replace road and traffic signs. Why the hurry? That was said to be part of the preparations for the 2002 World Cup soccer finals.

Road and traffic signs were not all that soccer fans from around the world required to figure out where they were or how to find stadiums, restaurants and shops. Local publishers of guidebooks and maps could possibly be made to follow the new system. But it was a totally different question whether cartographers around the world would promptly change Kimpo to Gimpo, Pusan to Busan, Cheju to Jeju, Kyongju to Gyeongju, or Tokto to Dokdo.

Business cooperation with North Korea is another area where unnecessary confusion has had to be endured. South Koreans, for example, have to book for a tour to Mt. Geumgang to visit Mt. Kumgang across the DMZ. The border town of Gaeseong where the South is building an industrial park has long been known as Kaesong. The North Korean nuclear facility at Yongbyon has to be spelled Yeongbyeon, and Kumchangni as Geumchangri.

Even more worrisome, few people believed historians and publishers of books, dictionaries and encyclopedias abroad would gladly use Joseon for Choson, Goryeo for Koryo, or Goguryeo for Koguryo. The UNESCO simultaneously placed the sites of old capital cities and tombs of "Koguryo" in both North Korea and China on its World Heritage List, emboldening China in its preposterous scheme to destroy our historical roots and national identity.

So, here we are now. We are stuck with the question of whether to keep our flawed method or go back to the universally respected McCune-Reischauer system. The dilemma clearly stood out when the state-funded institution, hurriedly set up by our government earlier this year to take up the academic front in the feud with China, chose to be called the Koguryo (not Goguryeo) Research Foundation.

The answer seems far simpler than many people think.

(Korea Herald 2004-9-1)