the 38th parallel of Korea

Seventy years after the armistice that marked the separation, Pyongyang punishes with severe penalties the spread of the Korean spoken in Seoul among the population of the Democratic People’s Republic. One way to limit the influence of the South, but Hallyu popular culture is also increasingly present in the North and can play a key role among the younger generations.

Milan () – Korea is commemorating this month the 70th anniversary of the armistice that marked its division, in a climate that in recent years has been characterized by the escalation of the confrontation between Pyongyang and Seoul. But beyond the public speeches and the missile tests, there is a very special border through which it is possible to observe the relations between the two Koreas: that of the language.

During its eighth session, which was held between January 17 and 19, 2023, the XIV Supreme Popular Assembly (APS) approved the Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Act (Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Law). The new legislation that, as its name indicates, aims to preserve the North Korean version of Korean, provides very severe penalties for any citizen who is caught using or disseminating terms belonging to the Seoul dialect that the regulations call “Puppet Language“, that is, the language of puppets.

This is the most recent measure to deal with the spread of South Korean culture in the country, persecuting all those who speak, imitate, teach or disseminate linguistic elements belonging to South Korea, with penalties that can range from forced labor to execution, which is explicitly mentioned in article 6 of the document.

The issue of language ownership is a sensitive one for the North, which for decades has taken various steps to remove any form of foreign influence from the country. Korean as a cultural component was highly politicized. In the 1960s, Kim Il Sung recognized the language and its dissemination as an important weapon in furthering the education of the masses in a common ideology, and consequently became the main vector for the creation of a Korean socialist society. During the decades of separation, the Korean spoken in the North and the Korean spoken in the South have undergone a different evolution, although they remain the same language.

On one side is Seoul Korean, which only partially eliminated foreign terms inherited from Japan during the colonial period and slowly assimilated Anglo-Saxon terms. On the other, there is Pyongyang Korean, which has been purged of almost all foreign (often Chinese and Japanese) linguistic influences. For the North, preserving the purity of its language is a way of preserving its ideological unity; it is not surprising, therefore, that from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Un, measures to culturally isolate the North have been an important part of national politics.

own Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Act complements an earlier law that was passed in 2020, the Anti Reactionary Thought Law (Law against Reactionary Thought). With the 2020 law, the government intended to implement solutions to limit the spread of illegally imported materials from abroad in North Korea. In 2022, the public execution of two teenagers, aged between 16 and 17, who had been caught trying to sell USB sticks containing contraband multimedia material from South Korea and the West on the local market, was announced.

However, completely limiting cultural contagion in the country is neither realistic nor possible. If in the West the phenomenon of Hallyu – the spread of Korean culture (Korean Wave) internationally – took off significantly a little over a decade ago, in North Korea cultural contagion through movies, music, K-dramas, books, cosmetics, smuggled into the country and sold on the black market has existed for early 2000s and its dissemination became easier thanks to the digital revolution. Currently, the Jangmadang Generation (those born in the 1990s) is the most influenced by it and has become the protagonist of the spread of the language, which is possible thanks to the contraband material that the Government tries to stop.

For Seoul, the phenomenon of Korean Wave has proven to be an important source of soft power that allowed the diffusion and popularization of their culture abroad, which meant an important economic growth for the affected sectors and also contributed to the study of Korean at an international level. In 2022, Korean was the seventh most studied language on the app Duolingo, above Mandarin. But in the case of North Korea, the phenomenon could have other advantages.

The spread of culture and dialect from Seoul to Pyongyang – especially among the generations now historically estranged from the socialist revolution and who see life and the social system represented through foreign media as an attractive alternative to what they experience in their own country – could form the basis for fragmenting the ideological identity of the North making the nuclear advantage less relevant than it is today. Therefore, the harsh repression is not surprising, even in a field such as language.

However, the weight of Korean in Hallyu could revive the unifying role that the language already played with the introduction of the writing system we know today. Hangul – devised in 1443 during the reign of Sejong – was designed with the specific aim of facilitating the learning of written Korean by introducing a phonetic alphabet instead of Chinese characters. The goal even then was for the general population to learn it, simplifying communication and cultural understanding, as one would like to see happen today between Seoul and Pyongyang.

Photo: Flickr /PBS NewsHour

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Written by Editor TLN

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