On Meta.Travel.SE, we have a debate whether our 'Korea' tag should be mapped to 'South Korea'. One of the answers - from the moderator who made the synonym mapping - is that common usage of the word 'Korea' often refers to South Korea the country rather than Korea the region, and when people refer to the political entity of North Korea, they specifically use the 'North' qualifier.

Frequency of usage of 'Korea' vs 'South Korea' vs 'North Korea'

I ran a search on Google's Ngram Viewer on their corpus for period 1940-2008 which shows the frequency of usage of 'Korea' vs 'South Korea' vs 'North Korea'. As you can see, 'South Korea' and 'North Korea' as terms are pretty close, with 'Korea' being the more widely used word.

My question is this: in modern-day usage - not historical - what is the word 'Korea' most commonly understood to mean - the region as a whole or just South Korea?

EDIT: To clarify, I'm not asking what synonym mapping to use on Travel.SE. What I'm more interested in knowing is that in English-language usage, what sense is 'Korea' most commonly used to mean.

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    Perhaps surprisingly contrary to this expectation, almost every time I start talking about my travels in Korea people ask "North or South Korea?" despite it being widely known that North Korea is one of the least straightforward countries to travel to or in. Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 13:02
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    @hippietrail: If you mentioned to me that you'd travelled extensively in Korea, I'm sure the first thing I'd say is "North or South?". I'd be expecting the answer to be "South", obviously. But I'd still ask, on the off-chance of getting the unexpected (but far more interesting) alternative. Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 17:06
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    I know people who have been to the north but haven't been myself because a) it's expensive and b) I'm told by people who help escapees from the North that every cent I spend there will go to do very bad things. Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 17:25
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    I think how people use the word Korea in casual speech and how to choose the best Stack Exchange tagging strategy are totally separate. I almost always say "Korea" when I talk about travelling to South Korea, but I think setting "Korea" to be a synonym of "South Korea" while having a separate "North Korea" tag is a bad idea for both ambiguity and political reasons, we've told contributors debating Palestine/Israel on our site that we're apolitical and declaring Korea a synonym of South Korea but not North Korea would clearly contradict that. Plus there's nothing to gain by a synonym anyway. Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 17:31
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    Perhaps a site like travel.se should strive for precision in its tags, even when common speech is less precise.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 21:59

5 Answers 5


The use of "Korea" to mean "South Korea" is far more common in the adjectival form. E.g. "Korean automaker", "Korean pop music" or "Korean soap opera".

Owing to North Korea's status as an economical, cultural, and political walled garden - or perhaps it's more apt to say "walled mudflat" - there are very few words to which the adjective "Korean" commonly applies for outsiders. "Dictator", of course, is the obvious exception.

Thanks largely to the media, this adjectival shorthand usage is firmly entrenched.

In nounal form, my sense is that the mapping is much further from one-to-one. (Since I don't know how to search one of these online corpuses for "this when not neighbored by that", I can't confirm that anecdotal evidence with data, alas.)

While "Korea" would be formally correct within their own language since they are formally the Republic of Korea, in English the pattern of usage I observe is to at the very least differentiate them on first usage.

For example, this is a pattern I hear often in the financial news: "Korean automaker Kia announced today it will be bringing 50,000 new jobs to South Korea. The company has long dominated the auto market in Korea and is now seeking..."

First nounal mention: South Korea. Subsequent mentions can be simply Korea.

So I'd lean toward not linking the tag Korea to South Korea exclusively.

  • -1 For unnecessary political rant.
    – Orion
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 18:56
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    Please indicate what qualifies here as a "political rant". Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 19:11
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    "Economical, cultural, and political walled garden" is a statement of well-established fact about how NK conducts its affairs. It's no more a political rant than saying that Egypt is currently seeing a growth of power among Islamist political parties. I made no subjective judgment about those facts, and they were germane to the explanation. Because NK tightly controls the flow of information in and out of the country, we have no North Korean soap operas to make the use of "Korean soap opera" for South Korean soap opera ambiguous. Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 19:40
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    Perhaps you took "walled mudflat" as derogatory. It was not...rather it was a simple reference to NK's famously extensive coastal mud flats. As for "dictator", I stand by the assertion that it is the one word that if you only said "Korean dictator" it would be interpreted as unambiguously meaning the North. Again, no judgment expressed or intended. In no way did I profess "dictators good" or "dictators bad". The post was not a polemic. Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 19:58
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    True that - Park Chung-hee - but I don't think it's widely known enough to make the aforementioned phrase ambiguous. Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 21:12

In American usage, Korea refers nearly exclusively to South Korea. I think most people would assume South Korea, unless you specified North Korea. Many consumer goods are marked "Made in Korea," meaning South Korea, since (I believe) North Korea manufactures few goods and the U.S. imports none.

I think it would be safe to map the tag to South Korea, and the very few people travelling (with great difficulty) to North Korea could specify otherwise.

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    This makes me wonder whether interpretation of the term "Korea" is subject to regional differences. Perhaps to Americans the term is less ambiguous as to others owing to the Korean War and the remaining presence of US troops in South Korea. It would be interesting to hear more people's views on this.
    – Bjorn
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 13:17
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    @Bjorn I would almost certainly think so, considering our lack of diplomatic relations with North Korea.
    – Brendon
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 13:18
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    Seems to hold true down here as well. Korea is usually South Korea, and we specify North Korea. Probably because South Korea is one of our closest allies, we have a constant military presence there, and it's a common travel destination. As for North Korea, given that we're still at war with them (cease fire, no peace treaty) and they have an insane dictator with a major cult of personality thing going on, and I suppose all that makes us differentiate them more from Korea. Kind of like presidential assassins. After all, they're not the legitimate Korea. I wonder if it's the opposite in China.
    – Phoenix
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 17:36
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    IME, people who are from South Korea tend to refer to it as just "Korea", but Westerners are more likely to use "South Korea".
    – Dan
    Commented Dec 18, 2011 at 0:59

I suspect that the Ngram you provided cannot be interpreted in such a straightforward fashion. Results for "Korea" will also include those entries where the term appeared as a part of "South Korea" or "North Korea". Furthermore, historical uses of the term would also be included and therefore the Ngram cannot be used as a means of comparison.

I agree with Barrie that Korea by itself is an ambiguous term and you should be specific as to whether you mean South or North Korea to avoid confusion. That said, if someone would say just "Korea", I personally would assume it to be South Korea (though I would ask for clarification to be sure).

Using the official names would definitely not be a good idea since most people aren't familiar with such names. For a non-Korean example: the Republic of China refers to Taiwan, but many people are unaware of this and would assume it to mean China (as in the People's Republic of China).


Korea alone is ambiguous. The official names also risk confusion, since South Korea calls itself the Republic of Korea, while North Korea calls itself The Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In informal contexts it’s probably safest to stick with South Korea in referring to the country in the southern part of the peninsula, but you may want to seek advice from the South Korean government or from one of its diplomatic missions.


I am an American living in (South) Korea. Koreans speaking to me in Korean (students, fellow faculty members and others) never use "South Korea" unless they are making a contrast with North Korea (and even then many will talk about "Korea" (i.e., ROK) and "the North" or "North Korea." I would say the ex-pat native English speakers pretty much do the same (though I don't interact with that many of them a lot to be sure).

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