A user sent me an e-mail stating that he/she is Korean, without further details about which Korea. In English, is it the default that Korean means from South Korea? Is it always the case?

For extra background:

The person is currently living in the US. From this information, I infer that it is very likely that the person is South Korean. However, given that the person did not specify this, either:

  1. They assume that South Korean is the default, hence no need to specify it;
  2. They want to hide the fact that they are North Korean, hence they chose to omit it.

Both explanations would seem plausible to me.

Also note that, in the context of the message, only nationality would be relevant, not ethnicity.

  • It is also possible that they may be American (born in the USA), but of Korean descent. In that case, it would be a statement of ethnicity, not of national origin. Jan 17, 2018 at 13:44
  • Indeed, thanks for mentioning that, I added context information to make it clear that the phrase was likely referring to nationality.
    – anol
    Jan 17, 2018 at 13:49
  • Even if the statement is about nationality, it could still be ambiguous. I once knew a woman who, when asked where she was born, said, "Korea." When asked if she meant South Korea or North Korea, she said, "When I was born there was only one Korea..."
    – stangdon
    Jan 17, 2018 at 21:10

1 Answer 1


If you're certain that this is a statement of nationality (not ethnicity), then there are a couple of possibilities:

  1. Technically, the countries' names are not "South Korea" and "North Korea". They are the "Republic of Korea" and the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea", sometimes called "RoK" and "DPRK" in English. A person from either country could say that they are "Korean" without being deceitful. And you are correct that is true that the vast majority of Koreans who are in North America are probably from South Korea (RoK), so lots of them would probably identify themselves as just "Korean" and assume that the "South" is understood.

  2. This is really a political, not linguistic point, but it is official policy in both the North and the South that their political division is temporary. If either side were to abandon their ideological/political system and embrace the other's, the two nations would promptly reunify just as East and West Germany did. There are some Koreans, particularly ex-pats who aren't living with the daily reality of the border, who speak as if "Korea" is one place that's having a momentary disagreement. In Toronto, where I live, there is a neighborhood called "Little Korea" and the neighborhood's Christmas holiday decorations include silhouettes of Korea hanging from the lampposts showing the entire peninsula as one unified entity with no sign of a North/South division (the picture I have linked shows a mirror image of the silhouette because it's photographed from the back, but you get the idea).

  • +1 for the cultural and political context :)
    – Elininja
    Apr 18, 2019 at 21:32

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