In which we learn about the naming of provinces in North Korea.
The Origins of North Korean Province Names
Since before the foundation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea ('DPRK' or 'North Korea') in 1948 a three-tiered system of administrative divisions has existed across the Korean peninsula. This administrative system is primarily based around provinces, counties, and villages, designated by the suffixes –do, -kun, and –ri, respectively, which serve as the basis for North Korean 'country grammar'.
The territory of the modern DPRK covers four of the eight Korean provinces (조선팔도 | 朝鮮八道) dating to 1413 AD: Pyong’an, Hwanghae, Hamgyong, and Kangwon. Add –do, pronounced like Homer Simpson’s ‘doh!” sans exclamation mark to the end of each when speaking in Korean become Pyong’an-do, Hwanghae-do, Hamgyong-do, Kangwon-do.
These provincial names derive from an old convention in which the first halves of the name of the two most important administrative cities in each province were combined into the provincial name.
These provincial names derive from an old convention in which the first halves of the name of the two most important administrative cities in each province were combined into the provincial name. A similar modern example would be Sea-Tac, for Seattle-Tacoma airport, or Wuhan, Wuchang-Hankou (and Hanyang; it's a triple city).
Let’s start with an easy one: Pyong’an-do. The ‘Pyong-‘ comes from Pyongyang, historic centre of the Taedong Rivery Valley and capital of the modern DPRK. The ‘-an’ refer to Anju, a small city on the Chongchon River halfway between Pyongyang and the border with China. Jack London once visited here and today Anju is a major centre of coal production. ‘Pyong’an’ also happens to mean ‘peace’ in Korean (평안 | 平安).
To the south of Pyong’an is Hwanghae Province named for Hwangju and Haeju. Today Hwangju lies on a rail junction between Pyongyang and Kaesong, but remains off the main highway. Hwangju’s former prominence has been eclipsed by the growth of Pyongyang and nearby industrial Songrim, although it is still known for its delicious apples. As for Haeju, it remains a major administrative city in the southwest of Korea and a port on the West Sea. The characters of Hwanghae (황해 | 黄海) mean ‘yellow sea’ in Korean.
Across the mountains to the east is Kangwon (강원 | 江原) on the East Sea (Sea of Japan). Both namesakes, Kangrung and Wonju, are today located in the south so we won’t dwell on them.
North of Kangwon Province is Hamgyong (함경|咸鏡). Hamhung has long been a major city in Korea’s northeast and was the retirement home of the founder of Korea’ last dynast, Ri Song Gye. Today Hamhung is the DPRK’s second largest city and major centre of chemical industries, including fertilizer and vinalon fabic. Hamhung’s counterpart is Gyongsong, once famous for its celadon production, but today a small resort town on the outskirts of its behemoth neighbor: Chongjin.
In 1895, the Ri (Choson) Dynasty broke up each of the traditional provinces into north and south. Thus Pyong’an became North Pyong’an and South Pyong’an and Hamgyong became North Hamgyong and South Hamgyong, etc. To form these names simply add north (-buk; 북 | 北)or south (-nam; 남|南)between the province name and the provincial suffix. Thus: Pyong’an-bukdo, Pyong’an-namdo, Hamgyong-bukdo, and so on.
After the founding of the DPRK in 1948, two additional provinces were carged out of North Pyong’an and South Hamgyong: Chagang-do and Ryanggang-do. Chagang (자강 | 慈江) is named for Chasong County and Kangye County, the latter of which is now a city. Ryanggang (량강|兩江) literally means ‘two rivers’ as it is the source of the Amnok (Yalu) and Tumen Rivers, which form the northern border of Korea.
Traveling across Korea today you will see road signs demarcating provincial and county boundaries. Many localities and farm names make use of the suffix ‘village’, or –ri. In the countryside, you may also see towns ending with –up. Cities share a parallel hierarchical naming system, which we will save for another time.
Updated 19 November 2018
Koryo Tours North Korea Travel Guide | The Definitive Guide to the Sights of the DPRK.