North Korea Is Strictly Enforcing Its Language Purification Policy

Jul 30, 2021
Originally published on July 30, 2021 11:12 am
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Authorities in North Korea are locked in a battle against what they see as attempts to infiltrate and subvert their socialist system. One of the biggest threats, as they see it, comes from their own language, Korean. In particular, they're worried about the way people speak it south of the border. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, controlling how people speak can be an uphill battle.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: "Crash Landing On You," which was released on Netflix last year, is one of South Korea's most popular TV series. In it, Yoon Se-ri, the heiress to a South Korean business conglomerate, accidentally paraglides into North Korea, where she's rescued by and falls in love with an army officer. In one scene, the heiress is reunited with a dear friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRASH LANDING ON YOU")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Korean).

SON YE-JIN: (As Yoon Se-ri, speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Comrade Se-ri," he says. In North Korea, even husbands and wives still address each other as comrade. North Korean defector Kang Nara says details like this in the series helped to make it a hit on both sides of the demilitarized zone.

KANG NARA: (Through interpreter) It created quite a stir, with Kim Jong Un even forbidding people from watching it.

KUHN: Kang deserves some of the credit. She served as a consultant to the series to ensure that the depictions of life in North Korea were authentic. Kang was born into a well-off family in Chongjin, North Korea's third largest city. She shows up to our interview at a posh cafe in downtown Seoul wearing a white dress

NARA: (Through interpreter) I watched my first South Korean drama in North Korea when I was 14 years old.

KUHN: Kang and her friends watched the drama on a smuggled thumb drive. Its South Korean speech sounded exotic to her.

NARA: (Through interpreter) In South Korea, people say things like - have you eaten yet? - or - did you sleep well? - and address each other affectionately, like honey or sweetie. You don't hear such things in North Korea.

KUHN: But there were other things about the TV drama that really blew her mind.

NARA: (Through interpreter) In North Korea, films are all about the party, the country, the state. But South Korean dramas were all about everyday life, like dating, falling in love, dressing nicely and having fun. And I liked that.

KUHN: Kang and her friends had cellphones. And they started texting each other using South Korean slang. They also took their fashion cues from the south.

NARA: (Through interpreter) My school uniform skirt was long because short skirts are not allowed in North Korea. So I made the skirt shorter. The school punished me for being tainted by decadent capitalist style. They put me up on a stage to face criticism and made me clean the school bathroom with a shovel.

KUHN: The toilets in her school were primitive. And Kang had to shovel excrement out of them. North Korea has been battling the South Korean cultural influences for decades. At a meeting in April, Kim Jong Un said grassroots party cadres should root out any signs of youthful rebellion and foreign cultural influences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUPREME LEADER KIM JONG UN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: They should take care of young people's attire, hairstyle, speech, behavior and relations with other people, he said, as meticulously as their mothers would do. The versions of Korean spoken in the north and south have been growing apart over the seven decades since the peninsula was divided into two nations. Lim Boseon is the director of a joint north-south project to compile a dictionary that includes both northern and southern words.

LIM BOSEON: (Through interpreter) Recently, speech in South Korea is changing faster and broadening the gap between the two. Language in North Korea has remained pretty much the same since the 1960s.

KUHN: South Korean language is evolving faster, he says, because it's absorbing more new terms and ideas from the rest of the world. He notes that the governments of both Koreas have tried to tell their citizens which words to use or not use.

BOSEON: (Through interpreter) North Korea has enforced its purification policy more strictly. But their success rate may not be that high. And in South Korea, it has almost always failed.

KUHN: Lim's team has finished its part of the dictionary. But he says a chill in inter-Korean ties has stalled the project. And the northerners are not responding to his letters. And despite the effort to combine northern and southern words in one dictionary, the drive to purge everyday northern speech of foreign influence continues. Kang Nara explains what happens to some North Koreans who are unlucky enough to get caught with foreign cultural products.

NARA: (Through interpreter) I went with a group from my school. You would see the person tied to a post. And soldiers with long guns would execute them.

KUHN: It's hard to think of a more extreme deterrent against watching soap operas and movies. And it worked on Kang Nara, at least for a while.

NARA: (Through interpreter) For about a day afterwards, I couldn't even eat. How could you have any appetite after watching the blood splattering? I thought I would never watch another South Korean drama again. But after about a day, I went back to watching, thinking it should be fine as long as I don't get caught.

KUHN: South Korean soap operas are addictive stuff, Kang admits. And she had to have her fix, which was the next episode of whatever she was watching. In 2014, she went in search of the life she saw and aspired to on the screen and defected to South Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NARA: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: She now stars in her own YouTube channel with nearly 300,000 subscribers. Her message to them is that not all Koreans are impoverished and sullen automatons.

NARA: (Through interpreter) I hope that people don't see all North Koreans as scary people. We, too, go out with friends, go to karaoke and have romances.

KUHN: Kang now speaks accent-less, southern-style Korean. She's even teaching her viewers some North Korean. The name of her channel is Nolsae Nara. Nolsae is North Korean slang. It suggests someone who is fun-loving and affluent.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACKPINK SONG, "STAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.