Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Korean – Introduction

September 18th, 2011 · No Comments · *Introductions, Korean (North), Korean (South)

by Tatiana Gabroussenko (North Korean) and Andrei Lankov (South Korean), with an introduction by Sheryn Lee


“Firmly rooted in the rotten, bourgeois life, the Korean language now spoken in Seoul still uses the nasal twangs favoured by women to flirt with men…; on top of this, English, Japanese, and Chinese loan words, now swarming in Seoul speech, amounting to more than half the total Korean vocabulary, have turned it into a mixed language. Therefore we should now take Pyongyang speech as the standard since it is the language spoken in Pyongyang, our revolutionary capital…”

–Kim Il-Sung, North Korea, 1966


The increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula since 2010 has meant the rise in the significance of not only understanding how North Korea perceives its security environment, but also, whether South Korea views North Korea as an opportunity or limitation to its own security interests. Korean is the official language in both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) – in which the national language is termed, ‘Chosŏnmal (조선말), and the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) – in which the national language is termed, ‘Hangungmal’ (한국말). This deliberate language divergence takes root in two hostile political systems, with diametrically opposed ideologies, which led them to pursue independent language politics.[1] As such, a lexicon of Asia-Pacific security terms would be incomplete without the most salient concepts in both North and South Korean discourses.

The Korean peninsula was divided in 1945 when Allied Forces divided it as spoils of the war into North and South at the 38th parallel. Since then, the two Koreas have maintained separate and autonomous states, with ideological differences leading to the adoption of belligerent and antagonistic policies toward each other.  In the years following the Second World War, what both Koreas had in common was that both states demanded a national language that was independent of foreign elements, in particular, Chinese characters and Japanese expressions.[2] Both Koreas launched respective language purification movements, with essentially the same spirit but with extremely different results. It is important to note that such an unwelcome and ultimately anti-national move was unilaterally initiated by Pyongyang.[3]

Linguistic divergence between North and South Korea since 1945 was accelerated by three interrelated factors:

  1. complete physical insulation of the North for now over fifty years;
  2. polarized political, ideological, and social distinctions (with socialism in the North and capitalism in the South) and;
  3. the different language policies implemented by the two governments, culminating in Pyongyang’s institution of the Phyengyang-based ‘Cultured Language’ (mun hwa-e) as their standard speech, as opposed to the traditional Seoul-based ‘Standard Language’ of the South (phyocwun-mal).[4]

This divergence appears, to varying degrees, in the phonology, morphology, grammar, usage and orthography, but the most amount of divergence has occurred in the lexicon.[5] As such, a lexicon that compares security terms in the North and South reveals not only a significant linguistic divergence based on competing political ideologies, but also, divergence based on antagonistic and distrustful sentiment.[6]

For instance, if one looks at the term, minjok (민족), which in both North and South Korean conveys the meaning of ‘nation’. As a referent of security, in both dialects, the term emphasises the racial qualities of the Korean people that make up the Korean nation. As such, the term minjok, is a potent term when discussing the (re)unification of the peninsular – the close identification of ‘nation’ and ‘race’ makes it difficult to conceptualise a separate North/South Korean state. Few people in Korea would doubt that the populations of both Korean states could ultimately be identified as a single nation, minjok. However, in the North, Koreans outside their borders are ‘less Korean’ as they are contaminated by foreign influences, and these external influences are ultimately evil. Thus, minjok has strong conservative, restrictive connotations which are related to century-old traditions that need to be defended and glorified. Conversely, in the South, they often deploy the term ‘Hanguk minjok’ to identify a separate South Korean nation. When Southerners add the prefix of ‘Hanguk’ to describe their nation, it implies a sense of superiority; that South Korea represents the independent heartland of the true Korean nation, and the suggestion that North Korea is just a part of Korea occupied by anti-government cliques. That is to say, South Korea is implied to be not merely superior but the only Korea.

Furthermore, the North and South Korean lexicons examine unique terms idiosyncratic to both countries that are pertinent in their security discourses. In the North, of particular interest is ‘juch-e’ (주체), which conveys the meaning of ‘self-reliance’ and ‘self determination’ and is deployed as a strategy to deal with threat. In the South, of particular interest is ‘tong-il’ (통일), which conveys the meaning of ‘unification’ and illustrates whether Southerners view unification with the North as a prospect or a challenge.




[1] Chin W. Kim, ‘Korean as a pluricentric language’, in Michael C. Glyne (ed.), Pluricentric languages: differing norms in different nations, New York NY: Morton de Gruyer, 1992, p.240.

[2] Ho-min Sohn, Cambridge Language Surveys: The Korean Language, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p76.

[3] Hyun-Bok Lee, ‘Differences in language use between North and South Korea’, International Journal of Sociology of Language, 82(1990), p.71.

[4] Ho-min Sohn, Cambridge Language Surveys: The Korean Language, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p76.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Chin W. Kim, ‘Korean as a pluricentric language’, p.240.


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