[Commentary] Koguryo or
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
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
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)