By Alek Sigley
Terms of Address in North and South Korea
In this next instalment in our guide on how to speak the North Korean version of Korean, we’ll look at something very every day and practical—terms of address. This is generally one of the first things beginners learn when opening up their fresh, first level Korean language textbooks. But just like the Korean terms for referring to “Korea” as a country which we looked at in the previous instalments, historical circumstances and the separation of the two Koreas has manifested itself in different linguistic habits when it comes to basic terms of address in the two Koreas as well.
Comrades Big and Small
The most salient of these differences might be the North Korean usage of the words tongji (동지) and tongmu (동무), which may be translated as “comrade” in English. Much like in the China or Russia of the past, the usage of these words in today’s North Korea reflects socialist ideals of equality and solidarity in that they are terms of address which cut across social differences such as gender, occupation and place of origin, and instead emphasise an egalitarian sense of commonality in the struggle to achieve socialist revolution.
They’re so commonly used in North Korea that they function much like “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, “Miss.”, and “Sir”, “Madam” etc. in the English language. They can be used straight up as a polite term of address, such as in “Greetings, comrade” (동지/동무, 안녕하십니까?). Or they can be used both verbally or in written text (such as a form, document, letter, or a certificate) as titles appended to either a first name, surname or full name, such as in “Comrade Nam Il” (남일동지/남일동무), “Comrade Kim” (김동지/김동무), or “Comrade Kim Nam Il” (김남일동지/김남일동무), respectively. Note that when used as titles they go after the name. They can also be used as a noun, such as in “Who is this comrade?” (이 동지/동무는 누굽니까?), “proof of this comrade’s identity” (이 동지의 신분을 증명함) or “A talented comrade indeed” (재간있는 동무로구만).
As for the origins of these two words for “comrade”, tongji is a Sino-Korean construction formed of two Chinese characters, tong (同), meaning “same”, and chi (志) meaning “will”. It is also used by socialists in China, Japan and Vietnam, and even by Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomingtang during the early 20th century as a term of address to fellow revolutionaries. According to the North Korean “Grand Dictionary of Korean” (조선말대사전), tongji means firstly, “Someone who shares the same intentions and struggles for the same goal”, and secondly, a term of address denoting respect. Tongmu, on the other hand, is a native Korean word, and used to be used even in South Korea by children to address their friends, but is now rarely used due to associations with North Korea. The North Korean “Grand Dictionary of Korean” defines it variously as “Someone fighting together in the revolutionary ranks to achieve working class revolutionary feats”, or as “Someone one gets along well with”, or as an ordinary term of address. (I’ve included screenshots of the Korean language entries for both tongji and tongmu at the bottom.)
This leads us to the answer to the question that may be on the back of your mind—why exactly are there two different words for “comrade” in North Korea? Well, tongmu is the more ordinary word that is used to address people of the same and lower age or social status. It has a closer, more friendly feel and brings to mind one’s school friends and peers. Meanwhile, tongji is more formal and as noted above denotes respect, so it is used in formal occasions and to address people in higher social positions or who are older. This is in step with a general tendency in the Korean language to modify speech patterns according to differences in social hierarchy and formality, with different verb endings and suffixes used when addressing people who are older or of a higher rank or social status, and in formal versus informal occasions.
Tongji and tongmu have enormous cultural and political import in North Korea. Tongji especially, has a dictionary entry (the “Grand Dictionary of Korean” one cited above) that begins with a quote from Kim Il Sung, and ends with several sentences explaining the political significance of the word, namely that it refers to people who “arm themselves with the revolutionary thought of the working class’s leader”, and that it is used amongst “revolutionary fighters” as a “glorious and noble title that embodies one’s faith in and love towards one’s revolutionary comrade in arms”. There is even a “Song of Comradely Love” (동지애의 노래), that is often played on TV and at events, and a TV drama theme song about friendship titled “Love of a Comrade” (동지의 사랑). One of the background images at the Arirang Mass Games contained a slogan about comradely love as a part of a segment narrating the story of Kim Il Sung and his fellow anti-Japanese fighter and long-time friend Kim Hyŏk. Tongmu’s dictionary entry is less detailed but it is also very commonly used and features prominently in songs about friendship such as “Thoughts of a Comrade” (동무생각) and elsewhere.
A Few Final Words of Advice for Korean Language Learners
Students of Korean should note that the title suffix that is commonly used in South Korea, ssi (씨; 氏), is not used in North Korea, and sounds strange to North Korean ears. Conversely, using the words tongji or tongmu to address people in South Korea will in the best case scenario sound comical, in the worst case scenario it will arouse suspicions that you are Communist sympathiser or the like.
Also, the honorific suffix nim (님), is used differently across North and South Korea. In the North is it used more sparingly in everyday contexts. In North Korea nim is not used like both nim and ssi are in South Korea, namely as polite titles that go after a person’s name (such as in 김남일님 etc.). Also, the title sŏnsaengnim (선생님) is used as a term of respect for non-Communist guests in North Korea. In North Korea nim is more commonly seen in political vocabulary, the leaders being addressed as Changgunnim (장군님; The General), Suryŏngnim (수령님; The Leader), Wonsunim (원수님; The Marshal) etc.
Students of Korean speaking to North Koreans should use tongji and tongmu carefully. I remember an incident where I was once talking with Mr. Nam, one of the North Korean military guides at Panmunjom, who is a very kind and friendly man who is anyhow much older than me and an officer in the army. I addressed him as Nam tongmu because I thought it matched the more chummy mood, but he looked cross and corrected me, urging me to call him tongji. It’s best to use tongji when you’re not sure!
Interested in learning the North Korean language? Then check out our Pyongyang Summer Language Program, which will be run summer this year at Kim Il Sung University.