Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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South Korean – Chu’kwon

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

주권      (主權)


Relates to sovereignty

The idea of sovereignty is expressed by a Sino-Korean word, chu’kwon (주권/主權). The first component means ‘man’, ‘major’, ‘ruler’ and ‘owner’; the second means ‘rights’. In other words, the Korean term for “sovereignty” can be rendered in English as “the rights of the master”. We are dealing here with an attempt to render the meaning of a Western term through characters. The word appears to have been first constructed in Japan. The traditional concept of “international relations” in East Asia did not accept the idea of sovereignty, which was imported from the West in the 19th century. In earlier times Korea admitted the ritual primacy of China, even though in terms of practical policy this admission did not mean a great deal. Korea claimed its sovereignty and officially broke ritual dependence on China only in 1897.

The concept of sovereignty does not feature prominently in the Korean press and is seen as generally non-problematic. It is sometimes evoked when territorial disputes (such as the quarrel with Japan over the Tokdo/Takeshima rocks) are mentioned. Sometimes the Korean Left, which is fiercely nationalistic and habitually anti-American, refers to Korea’s “sovereign rights” with regard to territory now controlled by the US military, or with regard to other privileges of the US forces in Korea.

The major problem relating to ‘sovereignty’ is the complicated legal situation that exists between the two Korean states. The general lack of attention given to the idea of sovereignty provides a context for understanding the way South Korea does not officially recognise North Korea as a sovereign state. South Korea continues to claim that it has a right to control the entire Korean peninsula up to the Chinese border. Despite such claims – which are seldom if ever enunciated these days – the South Korean authorities never cast doubt on North Korea’s right to behave like a completely separate political entity. There is a major difference here with the China- Taiwan relationship: in this case there is much discussion in terms of ‘sovereignty’.

Moreover, when discussing the meaning of sovereignty in regards to the sovereignty of the Korean peninsula or Korea (Hanguk), there is a divide in South Korean political thinking about whether Korean sovereignty encompasses both South and North. In regards to discussing the sovereignty of ‘Hanguk’ (Korea), the left-wing parties tend to focus on the sovereignty of the nation ‘minjok’, in which the nation encompasses the whole Korean peninsula. In this context, minjok implies the South Korean government and bureaucracy and minjok implies ‘race’ or ‘blood’. As such, the emphasis on governance in the usage of sovereignty implies that for the left, Korea is one nation but two states. Conversely, the right tend to focus on the sovereignty of the state ‘kukka’. For the right-wing political parties, the term kukka conveys not just the meaning of ‘state’ but a ‘legal state’. The right tend to see the South as an expression of democratic, popular opinion and desires, and the North is dismissed as a territory that has been occupied by rebel Koreans. This implies that the definition of Korea (Hanguk) only includes the South and excludes the North (Chosun). The usage of kukka when discussing sovereignty implies that the right regards the North as a separate state and sovereignty of the Korean kukka only encompasses the South.




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