One Nation, One Language? Linguistic Differences and Their Implications for a Reunified Korea

May 2, 2019

 (Photo credit: The Asia Society Center for Global Education)


By David Lee Former NKR Intern


Linguistic differences between the two Koreas are commonly cited as examples of how different the two countries have become from one another. In South Korea, there is a consensus that the Korean language in North Korea has evolved in a very pernicious manner, in that people are forced to speak an artificial and retrograde language. Both Koreas have a well-established corpus of linguistic standards that regulate what “standard Korean” (called Pyojuneo (표준어) in the South and Munhwaeo (문화어) in the North) should sound and look like. As younger generations of Koreans grow up with connection to those on the other side of the border, there is growing concern that North and South Koreans will not be able to communicate with one another if or when reunification happens.


In the last couple of decades, linguistic authorities and related government institutions in South Korea have raised awareness of this issue and have collected data on linguistic differences and popular attitudes on language. Academics have also begun to talk about which linguistic standards should be adopted in a reunified Korea. These discussions deserve considerable attention, as language has been synonymous with power in many countries, such as France and China. Language is also a sociopolitical factor for discrimination, whereby those speaking with a historically less prestigious accent or dialect are often blocked from gaining positions of influence. Language has the potential to become a tool for power play and discrimination in a reunified Korea. Those who speak the dominant standard will inevitably look down upon those who speak differently, and this could exacerbate the socioeconomic divide between North and South Koreans. This article examines the linguistic differences resulting from historical developments of separate standards and how bridging the gaps between these differences will have an important role in reducing the social divide in a reunified Korea.


The first document to established some form of standard for the Korean language is the Orthographic rules for school education purposes (보통학교용 언문 철자법), published by the Japanese administration in 1912. However, the origins of the current linguistic standards in both Koreas can be traced back to the Unified Hangul Orthography (한글 마춤법 통일안) published by the Korean Language Society (조선어학회) in 1933. After the division of the Korean peninsula linguistic standards drifted apart, with one side choosing to deliberately reconfigure the language and the other opting for a more passive and pedagogical approach in elaborating its language standards.


Over several decades, North Korea went through a holistic restructuration of the Korean language to better reflect the state’s ideological stance. According to the North Korean state’s Theory of Constructing Munhwaeo (조선문화어건설리론), ‘language’ is defined as a “powerful weapon to pursue revolutionary ideals”. When reading this book, one witnesses an extremely concerted and elaborate form of language planning with the goal of incorporating elements of communism and Juche ideology in the way language is used. There are profound changes in orthography, vocabulary and, to a lesser extent, pronunciation. Starting in 1954 the North Korean government reviewed its orthographic standard three times, with the current one in effect since 1988. In 1966, when Kim Il-sung called for the promotion of revolutionary strategies with Pyongyang as its base, the geographic reference for spoken standard Korean was redefined from the speech spoken in Seoul (as was the case in pre-divided Korea) to that of Pyongyang.

South Korea’s language policy, on the other hand, was less ideological or politically motivated. It concentrated on developing a system of norms that would remain more historically consistent while adapting to the changing societal context and use of language. An initial reform was made in 1958; then in 1988, a new set of comprehensive, albeit overly technical corpus,  the Hangeul Orthography and Pyojuneo regulations (한글 맟춤법/표준어 규정), was promulgated and remains in effect to this day. The new set of rules were minor adjustments from the original Unified Hangul Orthography, but included some novelties such as the “Sahee siot” (사이시옷; the principle of inserting a subsidiary letter to rationalize the discrepancy between written and spoken forms of Sino-Korean words). Although these norms were not legally imposed, their overall acceptance by the general as well as their spread through education and the media reinforced the authority of Pyojuneo in South Korea’s linguistic landscape. A law was passed in 2005 which formally required school textbooks to apply the standard linguistic norms.


The differences between Pyojuneo and Munhwaeo are easy to spot in both the spoken and written forms. The Korean language has many dialectal variations, of which the Seoul accent was traditionally considered the prestige form. As North Korea based its spoken standard on the Pyongyang speech, Munhwaeo pronunciation shifted slightly in relation to the Seoul-based Pyojuneo:


Difference in the interrogative suffix

Pyojuneo (Seoul):    –니까?    [nik͈a]    

Munhwaeo (Pyongyang):    –네까?      [nek͈a]


However, the differences between the two spoken standards are quite minor, when compared to orthography and vocabulary. For example, spoken Munhwaeo and Pyojuneo are more like each other than Pyojuneo is to the Busan dialect, even though Busan is part of the linguistic sphere of Pyojuneo. Although there is a popular perception in South Korea that spoken North Korean is very different, this is less related to Munhwaeo than to the regional variations that have existed even before the division. Such an impression probably comes more from the fact that South Koreans are now less exposed to northern dialects than southern ones, such as Gyeongsang and Jeolla dialects.


A quick glance at a text from North Korea is enough to recognize the differentiate the orthographic norms from the Pyojuneo norms. 



“⋯ 4학년 세계력사에서는 우선 로씨야에서 사회주의10월혁명의 승리와 아시아, 유럽의 여러 나라들에서 식민지민족해방투쟁과 로동운동, 공산주의운동, 반파쑈투쟁 등 혁명운동이 새롭게 장성한데 대하여 배우게 된다.”


(An excerpt from a North Korean middle school history textbook; retrieved from the National Institute of Korean Language)


The systematic use of separate norms, especially in education, reinforces the linguistic rift as young people on both sides grow up with a different way of writing the language. The biggest difference in the two standards, however, can be found in the vocabulary. Although there are efforts in South Korea to promote the usage of sunwoorimal (순우리말; words that are purely Korean in etymology) as well as to eliminate Japanese loanwords that appeared during the colonial occupation period, there are no governmental policies to create a new lexical repertoire. On the other hand, North Korea led a top-down, active movement to “purify” vocabulary from foreign-derived words. Stating in 1948 there were movements to remove Sino-Korean words as well as to “revolutionize” everyday words. The result was the creation of many neologisms which greatly contributed to the linguistic divide. A study led by the National Institute of Korean Language showed that if a modern day South and North Korean were to have a conversation they would not be able to understand 35% of the words used by the other speaker; in the context of a business meeting, the percentage would increase to 66%. This reflects the gravity of the linguistic situation at hand: even if reunification was to happen, Koreans would have great difficulty in understanding and communicating with each other.


Given the current situation in linguistic differences, there are two main policy perspectives (among South Korean academia) regarding a unified language standard. One is to simply and directly replace one standard with another, in this case replacing Munhwaeo with Pyojuneo. The other perspective involves the establishment of “pluricentric” standards, with a gradual merger into one unified standard. Both perspectives involve a certain extent of artificial language planning.


The first policy option, of completely replacing one standard to the detriment of the other, is both unreasonable and unfeasible. Therefore, a large portion of the debate focuses on implementing a “pluricentric” standard regime, with a possible merger of the standards later on. Pluricentric standards, meaning more than one geographic centre as reference for a standard language, are common in many languages (English, German, Portuguese, etc.). This policy is politically neutral and accommodates the coexistence of both standards for a given period of time, and one standard will eventually stand out as the dominant one as people vote with their feet and prefer to use one standard over the other. However, this policy may not be as ideal as it seems, with unintended consequences in real life. In terms of demographics and cultural dominance, pluricentric standards will ultimately lead to the dominance of Pyojuneo. South Korea’s population is twice that of North Korea’s. If reunification were to occur today, there would be 50 million speakers who have lived within the language sphere of Pyojuneo, compared to 24 million Munhwaeo-based Korean speakers. Secondly, and most importantly, the status of a language is reinforced by its social influence and cultural dominance, as language and culture are closely related. In the current circumstances, in which South Korea is an undeniable cultural powerhouse with an ever-growing reputation abroad, South Korea’s cultural (and consequently, linguistic) influence will control the social norm. As a result, the proposal to make a gradual shift from pluricentric standards to a “democratically” selected standard will allow Pyonjuneo to supplant Munhwaeo.


Nevertheless, even the most equitable language planning will not be able to fully offset the social, economic, and cultural influence that South Korea will have over the rest of the peninsula in any scenario of reunification. In any case, most academics do agree that the best policy is to compromise between the two existing standards and to make a new standard that will somehow balance out the positive aspects of each one. For this to happen a certain amount of artificial language planning is required, such as (re)establishing a geographical reference for the standard language, introducing new vocabulary to give greater presence to dialectal variation, and adjusting the discrepancies in orthographic rules. In any case, the new language standard will inevitably have a disrupting effect on both Pyojuneo and Munhwaeo speakers, as they must adjust to a standard that satisfies neither side and will be, for the duration of at least one generation, perceived as being “awkward” or “incorrect”.


Ultimately, the key issue that needs to be resolved is the “attitude problem”. Language is a sensitive topic, and there must be a common acknowledgement that both the Munhwaeo and Pyojuneo users carry their respective biases and preferences for their own standard. Based on a 2015 survey conducted throughout South Korea by the National Institute of Korean Language, 50.8% of respondents supported Pyojuneo becoming the unique standard of a reunified Korea, whereas 47.1% supported a new standard that would incorporate both Pyojuneo and Munhwaeo. Furthermore, a full quarter of the population surveyed believed that even after reunification, Pyojuneo will naturally become the dominant standard. Although awareness of the need for a readjusted standard is strongly, the prevailing opinion is that Pyojuneo is the superior – or at least more apparent – standard for both Koreas, demonstrating the perception of southern legitimacy and historical orthodoxy over anything invented and implemented in North Korea. The perception of superiority for Munhwaeo is also strong in North Korea, where people take great pride in reconstructing a truly indigenous language that reflects national identity and revolutionary ideals. The dismantling of this sentimental attachment and deeply engrained notion of “ours is better” is the fundamental stumbling block that policymakers will need to overcome to ensure an optimal language standard that transcends political partisanship and to focus on what will be the best measures to lessen the linguistic gap.


Language harmonization, not standardization, is the ultimate goal of a reunified Korea. Language conflict is not unique to Korea: language is related to power, and they who determine how people communicate also control how people express themselves in the public sphere. Therefore, language is a heavily politicized issue in so many parts of the world. In less than a century, the political and social division of Korea has had such a profound impact on its language that although the people on both sides shared the same language in the past, they are not speaking the same language anymore. Language, often overlooked for being irrelevant, carries significant political and socioeconomic implications in policy-making and therefore cannot be simply solved by empirically pragmatic and efficient choices. The stakes in resolving the linguistic differences are just as important to solving other materially concrete issues of power play on the Korean peninsula. Future policy discussion on a unified language standard must first and foremost approach the issue with the awareness of the existence of preconceived biases and political attachments. This will allow policymakers to ensure that their driving motivation for a unified language standard is not to make up some symbolically optimized version of two historically opposed standards, but to ensure a fair and efficient linguistic harmonization, which will contribute to the bridging the linguistic gap between North and South Koreans.


***The views contained herein do not necessarily reflect the views of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

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