Why Study the North Korean Language or Why Pursue Language Study in North Korea?
By Alek Sigley.
At Tongil Tours we pride ourselves on being the only North Korea tour operator whose staff have in-depth knowledge of North Korean history, culture and society. Such knowledge is grounded in our study of the Korean language—we all speak fluent Korean. We’ve taken university courses and degrees in Korean, been on Korean television talk shows, and translated North Korean short stories into English. We strongly believe that to truly understand a society you must learn its language, and that to be good North Korea guides one needs to possess a wealth of knowledge on all aspects of Korean history, society, and language.
Thus, we were very excited to run our first language program at a North Korean university last year—the inaugural Pyongyang Summer Language Program. Last year’s program at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education was the first of its kind, and the program, which will be running yearly (this year participants will study at Kim Il Sung University), is the only opportunity students from Western countries have to learn the North Korean language and study in North Korea at a local university.
To elaborate, studying Korean outside of North Korea, whether it be at a university or private academy, means studying South Korean Korean. Which is great! We think that the more people studying Korean, regardless of whether it is North or South Korean, the better. But at the same time, it’s a real shame that there are no opportunities to learn the North Korean language, because it is a language in which a particular North Korean culture and worldview is embodied, and which is rich in its own peculiarities and distinctions from South Korean.
So to give you a taste of some of this richness, and also help future Pyongyang Summer Language Program participants prepare for their study in Pyongyang, and assist other learners of Korean who would like to learn a bit of the North Korean language, we’ve prepared the first part of this guide to speaking North Korean. Since many of you may have studied South Korean, the guide will place particular emphasis on contrasting the two.
“Korea” in the North Korean language and South Korean
One of the most important differences to note between North and South Korean is that each has its own different words for “Korea”, and thus also “Korean people”, “Korean language” etc. The North Korean word for “Korea”, Chosŏn (조선; 朝鮮), is not used in South Korea. Conversely, the South Korean word for “Korea”, Hanguk (한국; 韓國), is not used in North Korea. People who have studied Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese will be familiar with these terms because they are based in hanja (Chinese character) vocabulary. But this difference is not reflected in English, which uses the word “Korea” (which by the way derives from Koryŏ 고려; 高麗, what is arguably the first unified Korean dynasty from the 10th to the 14th centuries) to refer to both North and South.
So how is it that two countries which share 2,000 years of common history (5,000 if you ask certain Koreans) have come to refer to themselves by such different names? The story actually starts in the late 19th century, but can perhaps even be traced as far back as the origins of Korean civilisation around 700 BC (or 3000-2000 BC according to some Koreans).
How to say “Korea” in the North Korean Language: “Chosŏn”
Let’s start with the North Korean word for Korea, “Chosŏn” (조선; 朝鮮, or “joseon” according to South Korean romanisation). When Ri Song Kye (Yi Seong-gye according to South Korean romanisation) overthrew Koryŏ and established his own dynasty in the late 14th century, he named it “Chosŏn”. But this name has in fact an earlier origin in the first state to exist on the Korean peninsula, which was also called “Chosŏn”. To distinguish it from the later Chosŏn it is referred to as “Kochosŏn”, “ko” (고; 古) meaning “old” or “ancient”, or “Old Chosŏn” in English. According to myth, Old Chosŏn was founded by the demigod Tangun in 2000 BC (whose tomb you can visit near Pyongyang by the way!). While archaeologists have found little evidence for this, Chinese records dating from the 7th century BC do mention Old Chosŏn. Old Chosŏn lasted until the 1st century BC, and became an important symbol in Korean history as the origin of Korean culture and civilisation, being mentioned later in important Korean historical texts such as the Samgungryusa (삼국류사; 三國遺事).
Thus, Ri Song Kye’s decision to name his new regime “Chosŏn” in the 14th century aimed to capture some of the authority and prestige associated with Old Chosŏn as Korea’s first state. Korea remained known as “Chosŏn” until the late 19th century. It was at this point in time that Korea was under threat from Japanese and Western imperialism. The king at the time, Kojong (or Gojong), decided to implement modernisation policies to help strengthen a Korea that had been relatively closed to Western influences. As a part of this he declared an end to the Chosŏn Kingdom, founding a new regime known as the “Great Han Empire” (대한제국; 大韓帝國) in 1897, with himself as emperor (a snub to the Chinese because previously only the Chinese had had an emperor, Korean leaders being “kings”). But with the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, the name for Korea reverted back to “Chosŏn”.
Throughout the 35 years of Japanese colonisation, Korea continued to be known as “Chosŏn”. When Japan surrendered in 1945 and Korea was split into North and South Korea, the North Koreans simply continued using the word for Korea that had been used during the early 20th century Japanese colonial period and the 14th – 19th century Ri Dynasty (Chosŏn Dynasty). They continue to refer to Korea as “Chosŏn” to this present day. That concludes our discussion of the history of the North Korean word for Korea—“Chosŏn”.
Next, in part 2, let’s look at the South Korean word for Korea—“Hanguk” (한국; 韓國), a story which partly intersects with the one we just told about “Chosŏn”. Part 2 coming soon!
Study the North Korean Language, Study in North Korea, Study in Pyongyang, Study in Kim Il Sung University!
If you’re interested in studying the North Korean language or the idea of study in Pyongyang or study in North Korea appeals to you, check out our Pyongyang Summer Language Program, this year at Kim Il Sung University. Study at Kim Il Sung University with us on what will be a great educational experience and an amazing adventure!
Wikipedia article on historical names of Korea:
Wikipedia article on linguistic differences between North and South Korean:
Huffington Post blog post by Tongil Tours founding partner and program participant Alek Sigley on being the first Australian to study in a North Korean university:
NKnews interview with Tongil Tours about the program:
Tongil Tours blog: the inaugural 2016 Pyongyang Summer Language program:
Pyongyang Summer Language Program: