Sixty Years After Division, Korean Language Has Gone in Separate Directions

The two Koreas differ in more than just political ideology.  Since the Korean Peninsula was divided more than 60 years ago, the way North and South Koreans speak has gone separate ways.  And, for thousands of North Korean refugees, the language divide is one of their biggest challenges to adjusting to life in South Korea.

When you listen to South Korean and North Korean newscast you might not hear much of a difference, but for many of the 15,000 North Koreans who have defected to South Korea, the difference is loud and clear.

For them, language is one of the hardest parts of adjusting to life in their new home.

That is according to Ko Gyoung Bin, director of Hanawon, a South Korean government-run facility that gives newly arrived defectors a crash-course on living in the capitalist world.

Ko says Hanawon tries to teach them the new terminology through textbooks.  He says the organization also uses movies to teach how to speak.

He says Hanawon even hires defectors who have lived in South Korea for a while.

The North Korean language is a relic.  It has not changed that much since the 1940's, whereas South Korean has added a wealth of new vocabulary.

Chae Su Jeong, who defected in 2001, says she found that out the hard way.

Chae says she did not realize how different North and South Korean languages were until she started working for a recycling company.  For example, she says, North Korea has only one word to describe all types of paper, but, in the South, there are many.
Political manipulation might be a reason for the North-South language divide.

As in many aspects of life in North Korea, language has been altered to serve the nation's rulers.

So says Kim Seok Hyang, who lectures at the Ewha Institute for Unification Studies in Seoul and who has written a book on how North Koreans use their language, gives an example of one word that has had its meaning changed since the Koreas were divided.  

"Sun-mul, in Korean language, sun-mul, which means present to your friend," says Kim.  "But now, North Korean way of speaking this sun-mul, sun-mul is the reserved word by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong il.  So, only Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong il are the only two who can give sun-mul to another person."

Kim adds, unlike in South Korea, where many English words are intermixed with Korean, the Pyongyang government has prevented foreign words from entering the vernacular.

Kim says, for these reasons, many North Korean defectors believe they speak a more pure form of the language than their South Korean counterparts.

But speaking their North Korean dialect in their new home has caused problems for some refugees.

North Koreans can face job discrimination.  Many South Koreans look down on defectors.

One refugee, Nan Byun Hee, 30, says she did whatever she could to hide her North Korean identity.

Nan says she was really worried about discrimination and being teased at school.  In Seoul, when people heard her speak, they asked where is she from. Nan says she tried not to talk, or told them she was from a different province.

But, for other refugees, speaking their language is a way to reconnect with the home they left behind.

Defector Chae Su Jeong is proud of his dialect.

He says he feels comfortable speaking with other people from North Korea.  He says the South Korean dialect still feels strange.

To help close the language divide, the two Koreas have agreed to compile a joint dictionary.  But any future linguistic cooperation is in question now, as the two governments are currently not speaking to each other.  

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