I am aware of the debate between whether Taiwan is a province of China vs whether Taiwan and China are 2 separate countries.

For that issue, China's official name is People's Republic of China and Taiwan's official name is Republic of China, so some argue that this suggests there is 1 China, and that both regions are part of it.

Also for that issue, Taiwan has not officially declared independence, and some argue that this is further evidence for why Taiwan is not a country, and is therefore a province of China.

So even though China and Taiwan each have their own clearly-defined land, military, and national identity, these are 2 major arguments that there is only 1 China, and that Taiwan is a province of China.

Well, these 2 points seem to apply equally to the Korea situation.

Firstly, North Korea's official name is Democratic People's Republic of Korea, while South Korea's official name is Republic of Korea. This seems to suggest that there is 1 Korea and that these 2 regions are part of it.

Secondly, neither North Korea nor South Korea have declared independence. The Korean national holiday of Independence Day falls on the same day (August 15th) for both North and South Korea, because independence was declared from Japan before Korea split into North and South Korea.

Therefore, it seems that it can be argued that there is only 1 Korea, as much as there is only 1 China.

So is there only 1 Korea? And is South Korea a province of Korea?

  • 81
    What's confusing here is to assume that there is a legal status created by the names chosen by the countries involved. Mar 27, 2021 at 18:11
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    Yeah, the notion that a region/country's naming and its sovereignty have anything to do with each other is a bit absurd. Are Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo one and the same country, given that their names are almost identical?
    – Will
    Mar 28, 2021 at 6:12
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    All these answers are irrelevant for all practical purposes. None of the parties involved care about legal or historical nuances. The only relevant fact is that the Chinese Communist Party wields sufficient power to coerce the rest of the world into humiliating its rival in this small way, whereas the Kim family lacks the soft power to do so.
    – Xerxes
    Mar 28, 2021 at 15:27
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    @jeffronicus you mean like the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”?
    – fectin
    Mar 28, 2021 at 18:15
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    "neither North Korea nor South Korea have declared independence" This is because both sides (officially) consider themselves to be the legitimate government of the entirety of Korea and, thus, consider the other side to be in rebellion from them, not the other way around.
    – reirab
    Mar 29, 2021 at 7:55

3 Answers 3


Much of international law is either customary law or created by treaties with different membership. When two states agree on something concerning the two of them, that tends to stand. So trying to draw analogies too firmly is probably futile and misleading.

  • Both the PRC and the ROC agree that there is, in principle, one China.
    They disagree if the legitimate government is in Beijing, with Taiwan being a province in an unresolved state of rebellion, or if the legitimate government is in Taipei.
  • For practical purposes, most of the rest of the world recognizes that the PRC is a sovereign nation, most of the rest of the world has a working relationship just short of full recognition with the ROC, and they know better than to stir the hornet's nest by making any formal statements.
  • Consider that the UN lists China as a member since 1945-10-24.
  • By contrast, both the DPRK and the ROK are UN members.
  • Both the DPRK and ROK consider the matter unresolved and the other as illegitimate.

How domestic law on either side of the DMZ views the other side will only matter if and when that side is able to enforce its legal system on the other side.

For comparison, look at the situation in Germany some 30 years ago. The FRG (West Germany) had never legally reconciled itself to a permanent separation, so when the people of the GDR (East Germany) overthrew the Communist government the new GDR parliament formally declared the accession of the GDR to the FRG. They did not petition to join, they said "hi there, I'm back" and that was it. Practically it was much more complicated, of course, but GDR citizens could simply collect the passport which said that they were and had always been Germans.

So the Korean question is currently frozen, and which interpretation prevails depends on who wins the Korean reunification.

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    It is all a question of who recognizes whom in which context for what purpose. E.g. while neither the government in Taipeh nor in Beijing recognize each other, and most countries and international organizations don't recognize the government in Taipeh, the International Olympic Committee recognizes "Chinese Taipeh" as an independent National Olympic Committee. Also, even though most countries don't recognize Taiwan as a country, they treat it as if it were one, maybe even more so than North Korea, which they do recognize. "Chinese Taipeh" also participates in the WTO and WHO. Mar 28, 2021 at 13:15
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    I think it is worth pointing out that while both the ROC and the PRC have actual govenrment bodies for their respective Taiwan provinces, East Germany and West Germany had no such nonsense.
    – Jan
    Mar 28, 2021 at 20:19
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    @Jan, that is a point, but remember the zip code blocks the FRG had reserved for the GDR ...
    – o.m.
    Mar 29, 2021 at 4:15
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    The FRG and GDR had officially recognized each other as separate countries in a series of treaties in the 1970s, and unification did in fact happen through a treaty that declared the GDR dissolved and its territories joining the FRG. The situation in Korea is comparable to that in Germany around 1965. Mar 29, 2021 at 9:52
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    @o.m. It's not only the zip code blocks, it's also the license number codes and the telephone area codes which were reserved. The latter two proved to be useful later, the zip code blocks didn't, but only because a completely new system was implemented because the old one from 1961 proved outdated.
    – glglgl
    Mar 29, 2021 at 12:27

Neither North Korea, nor South Korea recognises the government of the "other half".

So from the point of view of the South, North Korea is composed of five "provinces" (dō), with two more provinces having part of their territory North of the Armistice line. South Korea appoints governors for these provinces, but their role is symbolic. See the committee for the five Northern Provinces

The situation in the North is similar. Pyong-Yang does not recognise the government in Seoul.

The major difference with China is that the rest of the world recognises two sovereign states, one in the North and one in the South. Both have seats in the UN and some countries (eg Sweden) even have diplomatic relations with both.

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    I checked the list of UN members, and you are right that Taiwan is not on the list. I read that Taiwan is ineligible to be a member because it is considered by the majority of the world to be a province of China. Less less than 20 of the 193 UN members consider Taiwan to be a sovereign state. So it seems to be just a majority vote.
    – user37822
    Mar 27, 2021 at 8:12
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    Not really majority vote, but power politics: USA UK Russia and France, along with China are the powers at the UN. Search our other quetions on how the RoC lost its seat to the PRC
    – James K
    Mar 27, 2021 at 8:15
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    Note, The separation of Taiwan and China was caused by the civil war after WWII, and the wave/raise of communism that eventually infected a chunk of Indo-China. The loser of the civil war was actually, at the time, the governing body, which had legally represented China signing the Paris Peace Treaties, and been elected to hold permanent seat on the security council of UN, along with the US, UK, France and Russia. In recent years, Taiwan has not yet severed tie to the mainland China in the sense of national identity, except political standing - free society vs communist.
    – r13
    Mar 27, 2021 at 11:58
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    The ROK and ROC share parallel in the tragic separation of a country, but end in different fate. The ROC has been prevented from keeping its seat, or rejoining, in UN, due to the cold political realities - population, size of market, strategic importance, and the increasing pressure from the Communist China, with ambitious to annex the "run away" province - Taiwan, regardless of the will of the 23 plus million people on the island.
    – r13
    Mar 27, 2021 at 13:04
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    Regardless of recognition anywhere else, the truth on the ground is that ROC is the de facto government, which is fully stable and going nowhere without a future war. PRC exercises zero governmental authority there, regardless of territorial claims. The reverse also happens with nations recognizing civil warring parties, or even governments in exile as legitimate. Saying things doesn't (directly) make it so.
    – obscurans
    Mar 28, 2021 at 5:01

Korea in the first millenium was fought over by three kingdoms: Gorguryeo, Silla & Baekje. By the end of the first millenium, Gorguryeo defeated the other two kingdoms and unified the Korean peninsula. In fact, the name Korea comes from an abbreviation of Gorguryeo, that is, Goryeo.

It's been unified as such since then - that is for a millennium - even during the time when it was a vassal state of Japan which annexed it in August 1910 after the first Sino-Japan war and was ruled by them until the end of WWII when the Soviet & USA forces defeated the Japanese. This left Korea partitioned on the 38th parallel.

Hence, the situation is very much like the partition of Germany at the end of WWII rather than the situation of China which underwent a Marxist revolution and a civil war.

Given the long history of a unified Korea - a millenium - and this is much longer than how long the united kingdom has been unified, or indeed the united states of america - it's worth thinking of Korea as culturally unified. Moreover, whilst neither North or South Korea officially recognise each other and both claim to be the legitimate sovereign government of a unified Korea, there have been ongoing talks since 2000, the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration and which was reaffirmed by the Panjunom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity & Unification of the Korean Peninsula in 2018.

Given this history, it's not really correct to think that one is the province of the other, or not; and nor that they are provinces of a unified Korea - the situation is more complex and fluid than that.

  • Both the separation of Korea and China had the same roots - revolution and the involvement of two military powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. The difference been the US stood with and fought hard for S. Korea, while distanced itself militarily from "Kuomintang", then the governing party of China, because the governing body was perceived corrupted, and had lost support from the people. However, the US had stood with Taiwan politically until 1972, a year after the PROC was voted to enter UN with Taiwan expelled.
    – r13
    Mar 29, 2021 at 16:42
  • There was also a revolution in Germany at the end of WWII but unlike in the case of China it didn't succeed with the Social Democrats coming down hard and authorising the murder of Karl Liebnicht and Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacus League. Mar 31, 2021 at 0:18

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