Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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South Korean – T’ongil

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

통일   (統一)


Relates to unification

This concept is used to refer to state unity in general and the future unification of Korea in particular. The word is widely used in historical texts to describe the unification of different parts to make one state, and always has positive connotations. For example, the conquest of the three ancient Korean kingdoms by the Silla kingdom in the 7th century is described as the ‘unification (t’ongil) of the Three kingdoms’ (三 國統一). The same term is used to describe the unification of Germany (both in the mid-19th century and 1991), Italy, and other supposedly ‘divided’ states.

An example of recent usage is:

통일믄  남북간믜  군사적   긴잡,  전쟁의  공포를   해조햘   소는  밌다.

T’ongil-ŭn nampukkan-ŭi kunsachŏk kinchang, chŏnchaeng-ŭi kongp’o-rŭl haesohal su sonnun issta.

Unification will be able to dissolve the military tensions between North and South, [get rid of] the fear of war. <Hanguk Ilbo, 9 November 2005>


Since in a vast majority of cases in modern discourse the term ‘t’ongil’ is applied to the expected unification of South and North Korea, it has become the way to describe everything related to dealing with the northern neighbour – even if the activity in question has in fact nothing to do with unification in the strict sense. Since the connotations of the term are very positive (even when it is used by people who are anxious about the practical problems that might arise in a real unification of North and South), and since the term is accepted across the political spectrum, it is often used as a way to say that something is related to North Korea. For example, the numerous “unification studies” departments and research institutes (for instance, 통학연구소, 톰일문제연구소 and 한반도통연문제연구소) deal with North Korean issues. The government agency that deals with North Korea is officially called the “Ministry of Unification” (통학부 (統一部)). The repetition of the term reinforces the assumption that the supreme goal of the policy towards the North is the creation of a single unified Korean state, which will include both present-day South and present-day North. Unification is the supreme goal associated with nationalism and to say one is against unification gives the impression of being anti-‘minjok’ (nation).

While the term ‘t’ongil’ is certainly positive, it has produced some forms, which have been used to describe undesirable types of unification. Although, it is almost impossible to assign to the term ‘t’ongil’ any negative meaning, or to say that ‘t’ongil’ should be avoided, the use of qualifying descriptions allows one to criticize the ‘wrong types’ of unification without casting doubt on one’s allegiance to the ‘t’ongil’ in principle. For decades, one type of qualified unification was ‘chokhwa t’ongil 적화톰일 (赤 化統一)’, literally translated as the ‘red-colour unification’. This term implies a type of unification based on North Korean conditions. An example of usage:

적화통일이   뒤면   너도   못살고  나도   못산다.

Chŏkhwa t’ongil-I toemyŏn nŏ-do mos salgo na-do mos sanda.

If there is a red-colour unification, neither you nor me will be able to survive. (Hanguk Ilbo, 4 November 2005).


Nowadays, the wrong type of unification is often described as hŭpsu t’ongil 흡수통일 (吸收統一), literally translated as ‘unification by absorption’. This implies a German-style unification through the incorporation of the North Korean state and the extending to the North Koreans of all the rights and privileges currently enjoyed by the South Koreans. Such a scenario, it is now widely believed, would be ruinous for the South Korean economy. For instance,

흡수통일떈  비용감당  힘들  것”

Hŭpsu t’ongil ttaen piyong kamtang himtŭl kŏs.

It will be difficult to bear costs in case of the ‘unification by absorption’ (Sŏul sinmun, 8 November 2005.).



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