The Wikipedia article on Korea states that South Koreans call Korea 한국, while north Koreans call it 조선. Do 'Korea', '한국', and '조선' all refer to the same thing? If so, how did the three different names come about?

  • 1
    To understand the answers, you need to understand the history of the Korean peninsula and the interactions of it with it's neighbors, most notably China. Naming a country is part politics, part history, – and since history is the politics of the past, we can say that naming a country is just politics.
    – imrek
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 12:48
  • 4
    Why don't Germans call their country Germany? Or Finns, Finland? Or the Greek, Greece? Or Chinese, China? Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 18:58
  • @qarma yes, there could be equivalent questions on the equivalent sites :). I'm already aware of many of the things mentioned in the answers and I hope the phrasing of the question isn't offensive - I was just trying not to be too 'dry'. Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 19:02

8 Answers 8


Some ethnicity-associated names

  • Korea originated from the Goryeo dynasty, from about 10th-14th century.
  • Joseon, as present in North Korea's name 조선민주주의인민공화국, originated in the later Joseon dynasty from about 15th-19th century.
  • Han 한 originated as a native Korean word for "leader" and similar notions, which has been suggested to be related to khan (as in Genghis Khan) and the like found in the hypothetical Altaic language family. It was used to refer to the Three Hans (leaders) which led people who would eventually form the three Korean kingdoms of Baekje 백제, Silla 신라 and Gaya 가야, hence becoming a name for the ethnic group. The word was later transliterated into hanja as 韩 when the Chinese Han script was used for writing Korean, before the invention of hangul.

The countries' names

  • DPRK
    Apparently, when DPRK formed, it chose to adopt the name of the last dynasty in Korea, hence Democratic People's Republic of Joseon.
  • RoK
    When RoK formed however, the name which was more politically independent (in the sense that it does not pay homage to any dynasty) and ethnically inclusive (since it was claimed that all Koreans descended from people led by the three Hans), was chosen, hence Republic of Great Han.
  • English
    Finally though, Europeans just cannot resist adhering to the name they are used to - Korea, so the English name for these countries have Korea in place of Joseon and Han. Not only was their name Korea in English, if you look at binomial names (Latin) of some species, the Korean pine is called Pinus koraiensis, so you can expect most European languages to call it Korea.
  • The Sinosphere
    Due to all these words having hanja forms, languages of the Sinosphere do not use the word Korea and instead stick to their native forms of the official name:

    • Simplified Chinese: 大民国, 朝鲜民主主义人民共和国
    • Traditional Chinese/Japanese: 大民国, 朝鮮民主主義人民共和国
    • Vietnamese: Hàn Quốc, Cộng Hòa Dân Chủ Nhân Dân Triều Tiên

Note: Due to the recency of the Joseon dynasty, modern South Koreans may still refer to their country as Joseon.


In the end, the word Korea is used in English, and other European languages, merely for historical reasons. Their names in their native language, and the other languages of the Sinosphere, are more consistent with how Koreans identify themselves, unlike in English.

  • The names for South Korea in Chinese and Vietnamese are not as clearcut as you provide in your answer, speakers of these two languages, might take a more conservative (i.e. orthodox Communist) stance and call South Korea simply 'South Joseon' (i.e. the South of the Pyongyang regime), e.g. "Nam Triều Tiên" in Vietnamese. Modern PRC and Vietnamese media will of course just use 韩国/Hàn Quốc. 'Korean language' itself has two names in PR China and Vietnam (1) 韩国语/ tiếng Hàn Quốc or (2) the language of Joseon: 朝鲜语/tiếng Triều Tiên. Which one is used, is itself a reflection of political stance.
    – imrek
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 12:29
  • @DrunkenMaster yes, but I was using the proper name, not just casual or colloquial names. I could have just used 韩国 or 朝鲜 otherwise, which is how people normally refer to South and North respectively. What I'm addressing here is the formal thing. Anyway, thanks :-)
    – busukxuan
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 12:39
  • Outside of the Communist neighbor countries (including South Vietnam before 1975), the inverse terminology is also sometimes used, referring to North Korea as the Northern part of the 'Han Country': 北韩/北韓/Bắc Hàn.
    – imrek
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 12:39
  • Whether you recognize them as Communist or just nominally Communist, that's not what matters here but the ideological ties of PR China (and Vietnam) to the North Korean regime.
    – imrek
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 13:42
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    @qarma yes, AFAIK it is, but not "rather than", it's both. The name of the ethnicity came from the name of the three Hans, and the han word itself later became the name for the ethnic group which descended from the people of these Hans. Hypothetically. And then the word was later assigned a corresponding hanja.
    – busukxuan
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 19:06

Basically, 'Chosun' is the old name of 'Korea'. Used a lot in the past, it is rarely used anymore. 'North Korea' still uses the term 'Chosun', but it is rarely used in South Korea. That's why you have to understand the two words differently.


The English word "Korea" comes from the Korean word Koryeo (고려 / 高麗). Koryeo is a historical dynasty existing between 918 and 1392. As such, it does not make much sense to modern Koreans as a name for their country.

  • 2
    Isn't 조선 also a historical kingdom? Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 7:50
  • Yes, it is the following dynasty existing between 1392 to 1897.
    – Dono
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 7:51
  • In the same way, the name 'China' (and all it's other variations in other languages) is also just the name of a dynasty/emperor.
    – imrek
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 12:17
  • 1
    For example, 고려대학교 is rendered in English as Korea University: ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Taladris
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 5:58

Usually, 'Korea' and '한국' refer to South Korea(Republic of Korea, 대한민국), and '조선' indicates North Korea(Democratic People's Republic of Korea, 조선민주주의인민공화국).

  • Is there no word that refers to the whole of the North and South together? If Korea were ever reunified politically, is there an obvious name that the resulting country would have? Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 7:40
  • @topomorto I have searched, but I found only 'North and South Korea' and 'South and North Korea'... :( Or you can just say 'Korea', but it can be ambiguous. Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 7:50
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    In South Korea, it seems more common to refer to North Korea as 북한 or 북조선 with 조선 more commonly being used to refer to the historical Joseon dynasty period. Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 11:39
  • @GabrielC.Drummond-Cole You are right, South Koreans, including me, usually call North Korea "북한", not "조선". Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 11:48
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    @topomorto 한반도 (the Korean Peninsula) is the closest word I can think of to refer to all of Korea.
    – Vladhagen
    Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 15:15

How is everyone is this thread so wrong about Joseon and Goryeo.

The name Joseon/Choseon comes from the historical period 2333 BCE-108 BCE. The name "Guryeo/Korea" comes from 37 BCE–668 CE.

Thus the name Choseon predates the name/character "Han" referring to the "Samhan/Three Kingdoms" period, and "Korea" comes immediately afterwards.

They retroactively add a "Go-", the Chinese word for ancient/older/etc., to the front of both Choseon and Goryeo names to distinguish them from the newer dynasties/periods named after the original ones.

(Think about how empires based in Turkey and Germany both called themselves Rome or Roman at some point. Just because they were more recent doesn't mean they were the original "Rome" obviously.)

  • 2
    could you add links to some sources please?
    – user17915
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 14:17

'Joseon(조선)' is a country that has been destroyed and does not exist at present. In a modern society divided into South and North Korea(북한), there is only North Korea that calls itself Joseon. The official name of Korea (남한, South Korea) is Republic of Korea.

  • Welcome to KSE.
    – HK Lee
    Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 8:24

고조선 ->... ->고려 (Korea) -> 조선 (Joseon) -> 북한, 남한(=한국=대한민국)

Korea is from 고려 so that for 남한, republic of Korea, Korea, and south Korea are possible.

And for 북한, Joseon and north Korea are possible.


On the rare occasions on which the ROK and DPRK have cooperated in international sporting events (1991 table tennis world championships, summer olympic opening ceremonies 2000 and 2004 and winter olympics women's ice hockey 2018), they have used the name 'Korea'.

In general, though, Koreans use the name 'Korea' when they speak in English. At least South Koreans do - I haven't met any North Koreans.

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