Connect with us

Politics & Security

[Speaking Out] Why Did North Korea Use South Korea's Official Name for the First Time?

Fearing absorption by the South, Kim Jong Un may have used the name "Republic of Korea" to reinforce the idea of a permanently divided Korea.



Kim Jong Un inspects the test launch of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-18 on July 12. (©KCNA via Chosun News Agency)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called South Korea by its official name, the Republic of Korea, for the first time. North Korea regards South Korea as a colony of the United States. It doesn't recognize the South as a country, calling it "south Korea" until now. Therefore, Kim's use of the official name has generated various interpretations.

On August 28, Kim visited North Korea's Naval Command. There, he gave a speech, saying, "Gangster leaders from the US, Japan, and the Republic of Korea gathered together and announced that they would regularize various joint military exercises between the three parties, and started implementing them." Kim called the South "Republic of Korea" again when inspecting a command drill simulating an attack on the South at the army General Staff on August 30.

The name "Republic of Korea," used by Kim on the two occasions, was put in parentheses in reports by print media. These outlets include the state-run Korean Central News Agency and the Rodong Sinmun (Workers' Newspaper), the official newspaper of the Workers' Party of Korea. Korean Central Television, however, reported Kim's remarks as they were, without using caveats such as "so-called."

In a statement in July, Kim Yo Jong, leader Kim's younger sister and the de facto number-two official in the country's hierarchy, called the South "Republic of Korea" multiple times. However, her statement was not reported inside North Korea. On the other hand, Leader Kim's remarks using the name "Republic of Korea" were televised, drawing public attention in the North.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his sister Kim Yo Jong on April 27, 2018. (Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters/File Photo)

Confusion Spreads in North Korea

On September 1, Radio Free Asia, affiliated with the US government, reported the following remarks by residents in North Korea:

  • "I don't understand why the supreme leader would suddenly use the respectful name 'Republic of Korea' after accusing south Korea of being a colony of the United States. Does the supreme leader call the South 'Republic of Korea' because south Korea is prosperous?"
  • "Since the supreme leader calls the South 'Republic of Korea,' it seems that south Korea is strong."
  • "For decades, when the authorities criticized south Korea, they described it as a 'scarecrow' of the United States or a gang of south Korean puppets. The reason they used the term 'Republic of Korea' might be that they acknowledged being overwhelmed by south Korea's military power."
  • "Are we going in the direction of federated unification because we cannot compete with the system of south Korea, which is now an economic powerhouse?"
Pyongyang, North Korea on July 3. (© Kyodo)

Instilling the Idea of Permanent Division

An acquaintance of mine, who is a North Korean defector and human rights activist, heard the following from a North Korean diplomat stationed abroad:

We are very shocked by the fact that [Kim Jong Un] referred to south Korea as the 'Republic of Korea.' The first reason for such a remark may be that there is no longer a need to conceal its official name, because information about south Korea has become widely known in the North. 

The second reason may be that he is trying to instill the concept of a 'permanent division' of the Korean Peninsula. This is because the risk of a reunification through South-led absorption has increased as the North becomes filled with illusions about south Korea.

In North Korea, the economy is so distressed that many people are starving to death. North Korea is overwhelmed by South Korea's enormous economic power. Additionally, the Yoon Suk-yeol government has emerged in the South and enhanced military cooperation with Japan and the US. In such circumstances, the Kim Jong Un regime may have an increasing fear that the South could absorb and unify with the North.


(A version of this article was first published by the
Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. Find it in Speaking Out #1068 in Japanese on September 4 and in English on September 6, 2023.)

Author: Tsutomu Nishioka 

Tsutomu Nishioka is a senior fellow and a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a visiting professor at Reitaku University. He covers South and North Koreas.


Our Partners