The North Korean Language
Visiting a school in North Korea

The North Korean Language

North Korean Language vs South Korean

North & South Korea do share a common language – Korean, but after more than 70 years of separation, the language in the two counties has evolved quite differently. Let’s take a look at the North Korean language and examine how & why it’s quite different from the south.

Korean Language Society

in 1933 the Korean Language Society unified the language under a “Proposal for Unified Korean Orthography”. The language was basically the same until the Liberation of Korea from Japanese rule in 1945. Both the Democratic Peoples Republic and the Republic of Korea were formed in 1948 and since then the languages have been drifting apart due to differing polices North & South.

From then on, North Korea progressed with subtle changes. In 1949 it abolished the use of Chinese characters and promoted the Korean alphabet of Hangul instead. It wanted to in-still communist & nationalist ideology in the general public more effectively. 

In 1954, North Korea published the “Standard Korean Language” whereby 13 words were slightly modified. This was a small but significant change as it set the tone for more changes going forward.

South Korea continued to follow the 1933 proposal and any subsequent minor amendments.

By 1966 Korean both North & South had diverged significantly. Also around that time, North Korea began to refer to its own language as the “cultural language,” in a move to differentiate & elevate its language from the one used in South Korea.

Borrow Words

Whilst the North has replaced Chinese characters and other foreign words with “Hangul” and native Korean words, South Korea has adopted many English and Japanese words over the decades.

Today it is estimated that up to one third of everyday spoken words are different. It can be loosely compared to British and American English, while separated with an ocean for 250 years they are still much more connected than the Korea’s who share a land border.

North Korea maintains that its language has preserved Korean traditions and national identity better than South Korea’s, however the North Korean language still uses some old Russian and Chinese words to this day. 

The Northern side has also created new words for many of its revolutionary terms that are completely alien to the south. Examples include dongmu (동무) and suryong (수령), which mean “revolutionary comrade” and “supreme leader,” respectively. It uses many more words to emphasize and promote it’s socialist ideology as well as to criticize capitalist values.

Monument along reunification highway, Pyongyang North Korea

Difficulties

During the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, both Koreas fielded a joint women’s ice hockey team.

Communication proved difficult especially as they only had a month to train together before the games. The head coach actually had to create an English – South Korean to North Korean dictionary so the two groups could communicate effectively. 

It’s also been reported that when South Korean president Kim Dae Jung met with leader Kim Jong Il in 2000 he could only understand about 70% of what the North Korean leader was saying.

Problems also commonly arise for North Korean defectors in South Korea who encounter foreign words on a daily basis.

According to a 2014 survey on North Korean defectors by the South Korean Unification Ministry, more than 40 percent of respondents cited communication problems as one of the main reasons that make their lives in South Korea difficult. 

Due to difficulties arising in cross border communication some progress has been made on this front. Since 2005 the two Koreas have participated in compiling a joint Korean dictionary aimed at unifying the language. It’s estimated to be about 80% complete.

North Korean Language Study Tour

Rocky Road Travel run an annual and unique study tour in North Korea. We offer both two week and four week options for people who want to travel to North Korea to study Korean.

Each morning is filled with intensive classes at university before filling the days by visiting places around the country. It’s a one of a kind experience, not to be missed! Contact us today for more information on travelling to North Korea.

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Rocky road travel founder Shane Horan at the DMZ

Shane Horan

Founder

When Shane is not endlessly writing award winning content for Rocky Road, he's usually kayaking to and from the beer garden along Berlin's River Spree.