SEOUL — Is alphabetical order destiny?
Yes, say Korean scholars and politicians who have begun a drive to change the official English-language name of their country to "Corea." The seemingly arcane campaign is based on an increasingly prevalent belief that the original "C" was switched to a "K" by the Japanese at the start of their 1910-45 occupation of the peninsula so that their lowly colonials would not precede them in the English alphabetical hierarchy.
The controversy used to be fodder only for linguists and historians, but lately the debate has seeped out of academia and into the realm of the political. Twenty-two South Korean legislators last month introduced a resolution in their parliament calling for the government to adopt the Corea spelling -- the first time such a proposal has been made in official quarters in South Korea.
North and South Korean scholars, who rarely agree on much, also held an unusual joint conference last month in Pyongyang, the North's capital, and resolved to work together for a spelling change. They hope it can be accomplished in time for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, when the estranged countries intend to field a joint team.
"Scholars who have studied this more deeply than I believe it was part of the legacy of Japanese imperialists to eradicate our culture," said Kim Sung Ho, a South Korean legislator who was one of the sponsors of the new resolution.
Most evidence supporting the claim is circumstantial. English books and maps published through the 19th century generally spelled the country's name as Corea, as did the British government in laying the cornerstone of its embassy in Seoul in 1890 with the name "Corea." But sometime in the early 20th century, "Korea" began to be seen more frequently than "Corea" -- a change that coincided with Japan's consolidation of its grip over the peninsula.
Chung Yong Wook, a historian at Seoul National University, believes the Japanese -- who controlled the peninsula for four years before officially colonizing it in 1910 -- changed the name by the time of the 1908 Olympics in London so that Japan would come ahead in the ordering of athletes. But the closest thing he has found to a smoking gun is a 1912 memoir by a Japanese colonial official that complained of the Koreans' tendency "to maintain they are an independent country by insisting on using a 'C' to write their country's name."
"I am sure, though, if the Japanese archives were opened you would find much more evidence to support the claim that the name was changed," Chung said.
The North Koreans have embraced the movement to restore the "C" in Korea with much more enthusiasm than their Southern counterparts. Following the conference Aug. 21 at Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University, the North Korean news agency KCNA referred to the current spelling as "a never-to-be-condoned, state-sponsored crime."
"The Japanese imperialists deliberately changed the English spelling of the country's name in a bid to hurt the pride and dignity of the nation, while stretching their tentacles of aggression to it," declared the official news agency.
Lee Sang Tae, a South Korean government historian who attended the Pyongyang conference, notes that North Korea, unlike South Korea, has not yet received reparations from Japan over the occupation and therefore might want to add the spelling manipulation to its claims for damages.
On the other hand, he said, the South Korean government is unlikely to opt for a spelling change simply because of the burden of changing so many official documents.
"A preliminary survey indicated that it would be extremely expensive," said Lee, who helped campaign to get the South Korean government to officially recognize the Sea of Japan as the East Sea. "I personally think that it would be a good thing, something that would encourage young South Koreans to be prouder and more self-assured, but I don't know that it will happen any time soon."
Momentum for the spelling change in South Korea has come mostly from the young. During last year's World Cup soccer tournament, held jointly in Japan and South Korea, the South Korean fan club known as the Red Devils waved banners reading "COREA" -- as well as "Allez Coree!" and "Forza Corea!" using French and Italian, respectively, since those languages use the preferred "C."
And like many a campaign in this heavily wired nation, this one is being vigorously waged over the Internet. An online poll on one popular portal found that 69.4% of respondents favored a spelling change and 27.4% were opposed.
Those opposed have suggested sarcastically that Korea just pick a new name that begins with an "A" and thus would figure high in the alphabetical ranks. Or, conversely, that a rival country change its name to "Zapan."
"Has it ever occurred to Koreans that they've been duped by an urban legend?" wrote one critic on an English-language site. "That Japan would change the spelling so that it comes after in English is laughable. This seems like an invented story by some who have too much time on their hands."
"From a purely aesthetic standpoint, 'Corea' does look much better than 'Korea,' " suggested another writer on an Asian American site.
The debate is moot in the Korean language, which has an entirely different alphabet and has historically used the name Chosun, or Joseon, instead of Korea to refer to itself.
Proponents of a spelling change concede that they are unlikely to make much progress -- at least in South Korea -- in the immediate future. But they hope that if the estranged Koreas are eventually reunited, the nation will be known -- and spelled -- as Corea.