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Note #91: The Hermit Kingdom? (2014.10.16)

I was watching CNN this morning (I do this sometimes when my faith in humanity has reached uncomfortably high levels), and I happened to tune in just as the anchor was covering the recent talks between North and South Korea. In closing the segment, he referred to North Korea as “the Hermit Kingdom,” which made me tilt my head a bit. The first thing that comes to mind when I hear those words is not North Korea, but the Joseon Dynasty (the dynasty that ruled the Korean peninsula for over five hundred years before giving way to the short-lived Great Korean Empire and then colonial rule under Japan).

Wikipedia attributes the first usage of the term in reference to Joseon to William Elliot Griffis, who used it in the title of his book, Corea: The Hermit Nation, in 1882. In that book he writes: “Corea cannot long remain a hermit nation. The near future will see her open to the world. Commerce and pure Christianity will enter to elevate her people, and the student of science, ethnology, and language will find a tempting field on which shall be solved many a yet obscure problem. The forbidden land of today is, in many striking points of comparison, the analogue of Old Japan. While the last of the hermit nations awaits some gallant Perry of the future, we may hope that the same brilliant path of progress on which the Sunrise Kingdom has entered, awaits the Land of Morning Calm.” We know now that Griffis’ view of the future was too rosy and naive, but his first sentence here was spot on. After this paragraph, he notes: “As our manuscript turns to print, we hear of the treaty successfully negotiated by Commodore Shufeldt.” He is referring to the treaty of peace, amity, commerce, and navigation signed by Joseon and the United States in 1882, just one in a series of treaties Korea ended up signing with world powers in the last quarter of the 19th century.

There was, of course, no “brilliant path of progress” awaiting the Hermit Kingdom as it was pried from its shell. In the ensuing decades, Japan would systematically cut all the strings that tied Joseon to her neighbors: the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 ended Chinese suzerainty over Korea, and then the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 took Russia out of the picture. In 1907, writing for The New York Times, Stephen Bonsal reported: “Out in Korea, once the Hermit Kingdom, but in the last decade the favored scene upon which the pawns in the game of world politics have strutted about during their little day, things seem to be getting into a phase which approaches finality.” The article relates how the Japanese forced Gojong to abdicate the throne (because he sent representatives to the Hague Peace Convention), proclaiming it the realization of “the Japanese policy of practical annexation in Korea.”

It is this period in Korean history, the 19th century, that always comes to mind when I hear “hermit kingdom.” But apparently it is used quite frequently by Western media to refer to North Korea. I’m not sure why I didn’t know this—I imagine I must have heard the reference before, but I guess the association with the late Joseon period was too strong to allow a new association to take root. In a way, it does make a certain sense. After all, while South Korea’s official name more closely resembles the Great Korean Empire (the Great Korean Empire is “Dae-han-je-guk,” while South Korea is “Dae-han-min-guk”; the differing characters mean, respectively, “imperial” and “people,” the latter in the sense of the Greek “demos”), North Korea style themselves as the successors to Joseon (Chosŏn), which plays the central role in their much longer name.

Still, I wonder if “Hermit Kingdom” is really an appropriate moniker for North Korea. After all, as The Atlantic notes, North Korea is not isolated from and closed off to the rest of the world in the same way that Joseon was in the 19th century. And why are we so fond of labels and nicknames for our antagonistic states, anyway? You’ll notice how we never do this with our allies; when was the last time you heard a news anchor say, “the United Kingdom, the island monarchy”? I suspect the answer to that question is “never.” The answer to the previous question is a little more complicated, but it has to do with the status of the states in question as others; a simple, negative moniker gives us a quick and easy way of fitting that other into our world view and at the same time perpetuates their otherness.

Mind you, I’m not advocating sympathy for North Korea (for the North Korean people, perhaps), but I don’t think these nicknames really do us any good. Even if they are “correct,” they are, by nature, over-simplifications that discourage deeper understanding. “The Hermit Kingdom,” as I mentioned above, isn’t even correct. So what do we call them instead? I dunno, how about “North Korea”? Or “the DPRK”? And then you can just leave off whatever tidy little nickname you’re tempted to put on the end. I realize this is a lot to ask of cable news, but let’s give “the Hermit Kingdom” a rest and leave the phrase where it belongs—in the history books.

(Oh, and we need to talk about this whole Ebola thing, too. But I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much at once.)

Send me your thoughts.

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