A Puzzling Propaganda Discrepancy: Kim Jong-un Says the “Republic of Korea” but Others Say “Gwaerae”

Screenshot of an inter-Korean women’s soccer match at the 2023 Hangzhou Asian Games in China from North Korea’s Korean Central Television broadcast on October 3, 2023. South Korea is referred to as “Gwaerae,” which means “Traitorous Puppet State.”

SEOUL – South Koreans have a general idea of North Korea’s official name, yet few call it the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” In fact, many students in South Korean universities’ North Korean studies courses omit the terms “people” or “democracy” when referring to North Korea. This may be intentional since North Korea is clearly not a democracy and doesn’t deserve to use that word in its official title.

In North Korea, it’s very rare for any of the country’s 25 million residents to hear South Korea called by its official name: The Republic of Korea. They may not even be familiar with the term “Hankuk” (a common way for South Koreans to refer to the country). Since North Korean propaganda emphasizes the illegitimacy of South Korea because it’s supposedly an imperialist puppet state, most North Koreans avoid mentioning anything about South Korea as it could lead to accusations of political crimes. 

In 2023, North Korea’s leadership made a puzzling shift in the terminology used for South Korea, repeatedly referring to the country as the “Republic of Korea.” Kim Yo Jong, the Vice Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, used the term “Republic of Korea” twice in the spring of 2023, and on July 27, during the so-called Korean War Victory Day, Defense Minister Kang Sun-nam also used the term in his speech, leaving the participants bewildered.

Finally, during the 10th Plenary Meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly on September 27, 2023, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un mentioned the “Republic of Korea” on three occasions. Yet right after that, North Korean athletes who participated in the 2023 Hangzhou Asian Games (September 28 to October 8) didn’t hesitate to use the derogatory term “Gwaerae” to refer to South Korea. 

In North Korean dictionaries, “Gwaerae” means “a political group of national traitors who sell out their country and people to foreign invaders, including imperialists.” The term is mainly used in North Korean propaganda to criticize South Korea. Since Kim Jong-un and other high-ranking officials had recently been referring to South Korea more respectfully by using the official name, it was surprising that North Korean reports on the women’s football quarterfinals between North and South Korea on September 30 referred to South Korea as “Gwaerae.”

Both the Korean Central News Agency and Rodong Sinmun used the term “Gwaerae Team” instead of the usual “South Korea” when reporting the results of the game. The Korean Central Television in North Korea reported, “The match concluded with our country defeating the ‘Gwaerae Team’ by an overwhelming score of 4:1.” Even on the scoreboard at the bottom of the video featuring North Korea’s scoring highlights, “Korea vs. Gwaerae” was used.

Past instances of North Korea officially referring to South Korea as “Gwaerae” on an international sports stage were rare. During the 2022 Qatar World Cup, the term “South Korea” was commonly used, and even during the Cold War, there were hardly any cases of North Korea referring to South Korea as “Gwaerae” in sports competitions. Although North Korea’s choice of terminology may seem trivial, it can actually be an important indicator of inter-Korean relations, as North Korea is highly sensitive about how South Koreans refer to North Korea.

For example, during a press conference after an inter-Korean women’s football match on September 30, 2023, some South Korean journalists referred to North Korea as “the North side.” In response, the North Korean team’s coach strongly objected, saying, “We are not ‘the North side,’ but the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Don’t call us ‘North Korea.’ That’s not right. You should use the correct name.” 

After South Korea won an inter-Korean women’s basketball game, journalists referring to the country as “North Korea” drew protests from North Korean delegates at a press conference, who said, “We are the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Don’t call us ‘North Korea.’”

Ultimately, North Korea’s decision to use “Gwaerae Team” right after Kim Jong-un said “The Republic of Korea” may indicate a deterioration in inter-Korean relations around that time, but the exact reasons are unclear. The frequency of the term “Gwarae” in North Korean media has increased since the conservative Yoon Seok-youl administration came to power in 2022, so it’s unclear why there was a sudden discrepancy and shift in terminology for South Korea used in North Korea in 2023.

Kim Jong-un’s decision to publicly refer to the Republic of Korea is even more puzzling because using its official name implies that South Korea is a legitimate, sovereign state. That contradicts North Korean propaganda that South Korea is an illegitimate puppet state and that the North Korean regime is the only legitimate government on the Korean Peninsula. Regardless of the explanation, the North Korean people can hopefully continue to learn the truth about The Republic of Korea, which is the only Korea that deserves to use words like “Republic” or “Democratic” in its official title.

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