When you mention the ‘Korean Peninsula’ in a sentence it is often accompanied by words such as crisis, instability, border and tension. The geopolitical narrative reflects a tense situation that was never resolved in the aftermath of the Korean conflict in the early 1950s. The Korean Peninsula continues to be divided into a South (Republic of Korea) and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).
One of the most dramatic embodiments of the division is the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which is a 160 mile long buffer zone running along the 38th parallel north. We have become accustomed to thinking of the two Koreas having different political systems, distinct economies, separate capital cities and the associated paraphernalia of nation-states such as national flags, currency, national anthems and the like.
If, however, there is one thing that does unite the two nations, it’s a shared language. Korean is the official language of both countries and around 80 million people are Korean speakers.
Recent media reports have alighted upon the testimony of North Korean defectors to reflect on the isolationism of the north. Objects of everyday technology such as mobile phones and computers reveal the division.
But even more fundamental is that after decades of schism, North Koreans find their southern counterparts difficult to understand. One of the more dramatic differences was the incorporation of English terms into everyday South Korean speech. During the Cold War, South Korea became a close ally of the United States with American corporations and militaries entering South Korean society. They brought with them their language and educated South Koreans to speak English as their second tongue. In 2010, further government emphasis was placed on English being taught in schools. By sharp contrast, for North Korean regimes the English language was associated with the hated United States. As a result, South Korean speakers have had more exposure to English words. One example is the use of the word ‘stress’ by South Koreans, while North Koreans use a Korean expression inferring that their head is in pain.
Fearful of further linguistic separatism, the South Korean government is funding a trans-national Korean language dictionary. Involving scholars on either side of the DMZ, it is hoped that the dictionary will be a vital tool in ensuring that, in the event of reunification, there will be a shared language. At present, it is estimated that both sides would understand around 60-70 per cent of words and expressions in Korean.
The eventual dictionary should have around 300,000 words. It was supposed to be finished in 2012 after a gestation period of 13 years. Worsening diplomatic relations from 2010 onwards helped to delay cross-border linguistic co-operation. Some progress was made this year as permission was secured from the North Korean regime to allow a meeting with South Korean academics. A meeting in China was intended to consolidate progress to date and set out a timetable for eventual completion.
Preserving and protecting the Korean language is something that could – and should – unite all Koreans. Prior to the Korean crisis of 1950-1953, Korea was occupied by Japan between 1910-1945. As Korean schoolchildren learn, this era was notable for Japanese violence and their campaign (after 1938 in particular) to eradicate the Korean language from public life. Japanese became the language of business, government and education. Post-1945, considerable efforts were made to rid Korean of foreign words and expressions, notably in North Korea. But South Korea was also caught up in language nationalism, and animosity towards Japan, including its language, bolstered the purge.
The development of a Korean dictionary is thus rooted not only in past episodes of colonial occupation and violence, but also in a future aspiration of re-unification. In June 2000, a North-South Joint Declaration was issued which spoke of the need to plan for peaceful reunification in the future. A South Korean-based National Institute of the Korean Language attempts to regulate linguistic usage, but geopolitical division remains a potent barrier.
Other countries such as Germany have also had to address the challenges of re-unification. German speakers had a long history of a shared understanding of standard German, even if regional dialects remained important.
Compared to the German experience, the issue of Korean reunification appears a lot more challenging.
This story was published in the October 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine