The Korean script, isn’t it so beautiful and iconic? Similar to its neighbours, the written form of Korean language has iconified and romanticized the image of an entire nation. These block characters, which are known as Hangeul/Chosongul, are simple and beautiful. Although there are differences in tone, pronunciation and vocabulary, the language is largely the same between North and South Korea. But, have you ever heard about the little known time North Korea planned to experiment and modify the script completely? In the late 1940s following the establishment of the state, the DPRK sought to in fact create its own version of Hangul/Chosongul in order to serve several political purposes… although it was an experiment that would not last the test of time (largely due to the Korean War), it’s certainly one worth discovering more about…
When Communist states emerged in the early 20th century, their immediate priorities involved obtaining political legitimacy from the populations they came to rule over. To do this, Marxist-Leninist political theory places emphasis on the need for the single party to be able to convey the revolutionary message to the masses in a guiding role in order for them to sustain their true “class consciousness”. Communication was thus critical. However, in the scenarios of most regimes, they had inherited nations which were largely agrarian, underdeveloped and as a result, had large illiterate rural peasant populations. Thus, in order to secure political standing and effective communication, the rapid attainment of literacy became early policies in such countries.
In order to achieve this, several countries subsequently experimented with their national languages in order to reduce such obstacles. As a strong example, one such country was early Communist China. With Han characters being first extremely numerous, as well as extremely complicated and time consuming to learn, pressed against the need to rapidly educate hundreds of millions of peasants, Mao Zedong oversaw the creation of the “Simplified Chinese” character set and had thousands of characters rehashed. In time, literacy soared in China.
In neighbouring North Korea, a similar challenge was at hand. Although smaller and in no way as complicated as Chinese, Kim Il-sung nevertheless took power in again in a largely peasant based country. Not only that, but the early DPRK state was aggrieved at what it saw as the pollution of its language by the legacy of the Japanese colonialism. Korean had in effect evolved, new words had been introduced. There needed to be a political solution to Korean. There was just that. In 1948, the year the North Korean government was formally declared, a program was launched known as the “New Korean Orthography” or the 조선어신철자법 (Joseoneo sincheoljabeop).
The program had with very specific goals, to turn language into a weapon of revolution, to purge Korean of both Chinese and Japanese influences, to improve literacy and to make it more phonetically clear by solving the problem of changing character sounds when wrote in given context. To do this, it proposed five new consonants and one new vowel to the national script. This included the following characters:
However, this new system never took off. With the outbreak of the Korean war and the near decimation of the country, political priorities soon changed. In addition, the creator of the new script itself, Kim Tu Bong, was also eventually purged by Kim Il-Sung. As a result, the proposals never became official. Nevertheless, many elements in tandem with it did. The political purge of foreign words from the language continued, as did the ban on Chinese characters (Hanja). The political influences are widely noticeable today, with Korean in the South having a plethora of foreign words and influences, especially from America, whereas that of the North does not.
Consistently, language has remained a tool of the revolution in the DPRK. With an endless flow of messages, slogans and posters, communication from the state has maintained its hegemony over all things. Its role in education is robust, hence North Korea is the only country on Earth which has a 100% literacy rate.
If you are interested in learning Korean yourself, then check out our 2019 summer study program set in a real Pyongyang University!