Signs of Power

June 22, 2011 at 3:02 am (History, Politics)

In history and in international relations, one commonly speaks in terms of the power of a particular country, institution, or group of peopleIt is an intuitive concept that is not meant to be defined clearly, and academics have came up with numerous ways to “measure” power: economic strength, military might, diplomatic relations, and so on. It is very often in dispute which of these criteria are important or relevant; one particular problem is that the process from which we decide these criteria is tainted by power as well.

There are some trivial things like naming and symbolism which, I think, can serve as relatively neutral indicators of the balance of power. Here is an example: There are three common names for the nation that we refer to in English as “Korea”: Chosen/Joseon (朝鮮)[1], Han (韓), and Goguryeo/Goryeo (高句麗/高麗). None of these three are considered standard. This is quite unusual. – for example, while the Chinese ethnicity refer to themselves by various names such as Tang (唐) and Hua (華), the name Han (漢) is generally considered standard. There is no such agreement for the Korean name, however.

This eventually became a problem: For various historical, geographic and political reasons, after the Second World War and the division of Korea, North Korea decided to name itself after Chosen, as 「朝鮮民主主義人民共和國」 (Chosen Democratic People’s Republic, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea); while South Korea decided to name itself after Han, as 「大韓民國」 (Great Han Republic, officially known as the Republic of Korea).[2]

This created a problem for people in other countries who do not use the Westernized “Korea” name, like the Chinese. Nobody wants to refer to the Koreas as two separate nations, but somehow they have decided to give themselves separate names. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), who are used to disputes about sovereignty and names, came up with separate and equally brilliant solutions. In the PRC, North Korea is referred to as “Chosen” and South Korea is referred to as “South Chosen“. In the ROC, we have the exact opposite: South Korea is known as “Han” and North Korea is known as “North Han“.

The fact that the PRC chose “Chosen” as the standard name cannot be attributed solely to political allegiance. As is well-known, during its early years the North Korean economy is considered to be more successful than the South Korean economy. North Korea not only performed better in child mortality, education, life expectancy and all the other social indicators, they outperformed South Korea even in GDP per capita and GDP growth. As for military power, there is no doubt that North Korea was the superior; it had, with moderate Chinese aid, defeated the combined armies of the Western powers. So, by any measure of power, North Korea was a more powerful country than South Korea, and the PRC’s naming convention seems to be a good reflection of this balance of power.

This gradually changed with the 1970s and 1980s. North Korea, as with many other planned economies, was experiencing stagnation in all sectors, while South Korea began its economic miracle that came along with economic and political liberalization. When this was realized, more and more people in the People’s Republic find themselves using the Taiwanese nomenclature. By 1992, the South Korean economy was more than ten times the size of the North Korean economy. With the fall of the Soviet bloc, PRC had no choice but to establish relations with South Korea and recognize it by its official name Han; and thus the naming dispute disappeared from history. The PRC did not abandon its old ally Chosen, but Chinese scholars and increasingly the Chinese public have adopted the Taiwanese nomenclature (or sometimes the more neutral “South Han and North Han”).

Thus an interesting and often overlooked naming dispute shows us with remarkably accuracy the balance of power between the two Koreas in modern history. There are other examples of naming in history that followed the same pattern: For example, from the 15th century to the early 19th century, the word “America” generally referred to what we know today as Latin America: the rich lands of Mexico, the prosperous slave plants in the Caribbean, the gold mines of the Andes, and so on. The land in North America was described by such phrases as “quelques arpents de naige” (a few acres of snow) by the intellectuals of the day. Of course, with the rise of the United States as a world power in the late 19th century and the stagnation of the Spanish and Portuguese lands, that quickly changed; today, when one speaks of “America”, it is understood that he refers to the United States and not to the rest of the continent.

Examples can be found not just in names, but also in other symbolic institutions such as the drawing of a map. For much of the Middle Ages the “Middle-East” region – Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia – was not known or thought of as the “Middle-East” – they were simply the Middle, the center of world power. Their influence was considered secondary only to that of the exotic and prosperous East, India and China. Reflecting these thoughts, most contemporary maps were drawn with Palestine and Mesopotamia in the middle and with the East on top (thus giving meaning to the word “orientation”), and with the impoverished Europe and Africa sharing a place at the bottom. It was only during the colonial age that Europeans began to redraw their world maps such that the orientation of the labels faced the North, thus forcing all to look up towards Europe.

Such signs of power have a thing in common: they are relatively trivial and insignificant conventions, which are just noticeable enough to act as a good indicator of the balance of power, but not noticeable enough such that they can be distorted or manipulated by external forces. Of course, their effectiveness depends very much on the context of their use. For example, naming is not always considered completely trivial; sometimes names do seem to matter a lot. Here I have an anecdote that reveals just how much they could matter in some societies:

During my last year of high school, I switched from a Chinese local school to an American international school in Hong Kong. For some reason, there was a disproportionate number of Koreans in our school, and in our Advanced Placement World History class there was close to a majority of Korean students. Once, the teacher mentioned something about the features of the East China Sea; she was immediately interrupted by a fair number of Koreans, who feigned confusion and suggested that she might be referring to the “West Korea Sea“.

Apparently the teacher was used to such reactions; she conceded quickly and continued to speak. But she then made another terrible blunder: “To the east, across the Korea Strait, is the Sea of Japan…” This time the Korean students did not even bother to feign confusion; all of them immediately shouted in unison: “East Korea Sea!”


1. Here I am using the Chinese script rather than the Korean script; both are considered standard for technical and historical terms in Korean, because for most of the history of Korea (up to the 19th century), the Chinese script was used for writing. In fact, the Korean script is commonly known as the “vulgar script”, and for a while was even referred to as the “children’s script”.

2. The words 民國 and 共和國 are synonyms in Chinese and in Korean; both refer to “republic”. The first term is the creation of 19th century China and is a more classical expression; the latter, like many modern Chinese terms, is borrowed from the Japanese during the period of vernacular Chinese reforms in the 1910s-20s. The fact that North Korea used the newer, Japanese-origin term may be a reflection of their more progressive and internationalist ideology, compared to the South Korea of the time. Interestingly, the Republic of China also uses the term 民國 while the People’s Republic uses the term 共和國; this, however, can be explained by a difference of time period rather than ideology.


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