Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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South Korean – Anjon | Anjong | Anbo

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Korean (South), Security

안전  (安全)


안정 (安定)


안보 (安保)


Relates to security

Korean has three words to express the idea of “security/safety” which have subtle but real differences in meaning. All these words are of Sino-Japanese origin; they are coined in Japan by combining together two Chinese characters. These terms are widely used but their meanings do not correlate exactly with the English equivalents.

The term ‘안전 (安全)  anjŏn’ consists of two Chinese characters: the first suggesting “peaceful, tranquil” (안 / 安 / an); the second, ‘whole, intact’ (전 / 전 / jŏn). This expression is used to emphasize physical safety and wholeness, which are implicit in its component characters. The word ‘안전 (安全)  anjŏn’ is used in many expressions relating to ‘safety’, for example ‘안전띠 (安全帶) anjŏn tti’ (safety belt) or ‘안전제일 (安全第一) anjŏn cheil’ (“safety first”, a slogan widely used in Korea as well as in Japan).

Anjŏn should not be perceived as merely a Korean equivalent for ‘safety’, since it is widely used in combinations where English speakers would say ‘security’. For example, all operations of “security services” in both Koreas are described by this word. The North Korean intelligence agency, also acting as political police, are known as “국가안전보위부  (國家安全保衛部)” or “Ministry for protection of the state’s anjŏn”. Its South Korean counterpart was once (1982-1999) known as ‘국가안전기흭부 (國家安全企劃部)’ or ‘Committee for planning the state’s anjŏn’. Clearly, in both cases ‘안전 (安全) anjŏn’ would be translated as ‘security’, not ‘safety’.

The second word is ‘안정 (安定) anjŏng’. It also consists of two Chinese characters. The first character is the same, meaning ‘peaceful’ or ‘tranquil’ while the second character means ‘stable’ or ‘settled’. The word is closer in meaning to “security”, as testified by such expressions as ‘직업안정 (職業安定)chikŏp anjŏng’ (job security). It is also widely used to translate English expressions, which includes the word ‘stability’ – and in Korean ‘stability’ suggests a lack of undesirable or unpredictable change. One of many possible examples is ‘안정인구 (安定人口) anjŏng ingu’ (stable population), and here ‘stability’ might refer to demographic and economic characteristics as well as political stability. It is significant, therefore, that the term ‘anjong’ unlike the English ‘security’, carries the idea of ‘stability’ as well as ‘security’.

The third word is ‘안보 (安保) anbo’. The first component is once again the same character “peaceful, tranquil”, while the second component has the meaning of ‘protection’ or ‘defense’. This can be rendered as “peace protection”. As its composite characters indicate, this term is most commonly used in contexts where “security” can be described as “absence of war” or other organised violence. Hence, the ROK-US Security Consultative Meeting, the major agency dealing with the ROK-US alliance, is known as 한미안보협 의회의 (韓美安保協議會議) or ‘ROK-US Consultative Meeting on anbo. The assumption here is that the major mission of the alliance is to keep Korea in peace (indeed, this is how the alliance is normally portrayed by its supporters).

It seems significant that the term ‘anbo’ is used in references to food security, ‘식량안보 (sing nyang anbo)’. This suggests the degree of concern about the topic, including the possible military dimension of protecting food supplies. The idea of food security, of not depending on sea-lanes to assure food supplies, is an important consideration in South Korea. In the 1970s the government developed a relatively inefficient agricultural economy with the specific objective of achieving food security. In the past, the farmers’ lobby were seen as right-wing activists but today that lobby is closely related to left-wing nationalist newspapers (though it has the potential to become once more a right-wing concern).

In Korean documents one can find use of all three words in, say, combination with ‘위협 wihyŏp’ (threat). But the differences are clear.

For example:

  • 제한측   적업인력   안전  외협 “North Korean side [creates] threats to security (anjon) of the US personnel” (Munhwa ilbo daily, May 26, 2005). This implies that the physical safety/security of the US personnel in North Korea is threatened.
  • 최 댸  안보외협이자    걱 정거 리였던  북햭문 제자.. “The North Korean nuclear issue has been the major reason for worry and the largest security (anbo) threat” (Kukmin ilbo daily, September 19, 2005). This implies that the nuclear issue could potentially lead to a war.
  • 실험으로  핵경쟁  자속 “  <…>동북아   안정위협 “문 제제기. “The escalation in competition in nuclear research experiments in North and South [Korea] is raised as a threat to security (anjŏng) of North East Asia” (Kyonghyang sinmun daily, September 9, 2004). It implies that stability of the region is under threat.

In this range of Korean terms, therefore, there are differing gradations of security awareness. When the English word ‘security’ is employed in translation from Korean it is obviously important to determine which of these three Korean terms is being used. The specific terms that relate to ‘security’ also cover a considerable broader area than the English term suggests. For this reason, the Korean terminology has the potential to legitimise a relatively broad range of police intervention in society.

We do not encounter in South Korea a strong concern about ideological security. There is relative tolerance of radical ideologies and the compulsory anti-communism of the 1960s promoted scepticism. There is no automatic revulsion regarding Nazism, fascism or communism. There is concern about cultural threat – for example from, America and Japan – but it is not currently a strong concern. The defence of traditional culture (Confucian culture) is not a major preoccupation in Korea: there is an acceptance of modernity, including of the fact that modernity is much influenced by the West. Anxiety about a possible damaging influence from Japanese popular culture is also much reduced in South Korea today. Even concern about communist influence today tends to be outmoded.

Although discussion about threats –  ‘위협 (wihyŏp)’ – to security can cover moral and cultural threats, in general it must be said that when Koreans talk about the security of their country, the focus tends to be on a real or imagined military threat.



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