After almost seven years of meetings, linguists from South and North became ddak–chingu (best friends). They would mix informal and honorific speech – a rarity among Korean speakers – and sometimes kick each other playfully.
After particularly exhausting meetings, they would play the “train game” with the North Korean song “See You Again” playing in the background: more than 70 linguistic experts playing, following each other shoulder to shoulder.
After saying goodbye, the linguists from North, evidently overcome with emotion, would not maintain eye contact with their counterparts from South, just waving and leaving. Their next meeting is scheduled for December, but a lot can happen in inter-Korean relations in that amount of time, and nobody can ensure that the next meeting will happen.
The project to publish Gyeoremal Keunsajeon (the unified Korean dictionary), compiling vocabulary from South, North and even overseas Koreans, was launched by pastor Moon Ik-hwan’s suggestion in 1989. Moon, who visited North Korea without government permission and was later arrested by South Korean authorities, proposed the project to Kim Il Sung during his stay in Pyongyang.
In 2007 a Seoul government much more open to cooperation enacted a law funding the project. While the inter-Korean exchanges have been expanding since the August 25 agreement and reunion of separated families, NK News met secretary general Kim Hak-mook (KHM), secretary general of the Joint Board of South and North Korea for the Compilation of Gyeoremal-Keunsajeon, and senior researcher Kim Wan-seo (KWS) at the board’s office in Gongdeok, Seoul, as they prepared for the anticipated December meeting.
NK News: The Ministry of Unification has stated its plan to boost inter-Korean exchanges to recover ethnic commonality. The August 25 agreement also mentioned cultural exchanges, and President Park Geun-hye reiterated this on October 27 in her address at National Assembly. Has this resulted in any changes to your project?
Hak: Yes, we can detect the changes. Not only our project, but the inter-Korean exchanges been growing quantitatively these days. The most recent compilation meeting took place at Mount Kumgang on September 19, which is very rare. After the gunshot accident in Mount Kumgang in 2008 (in which a South Korean tourist was killed, resulting in the end of the inter-Korean project there), we’ve usually held it in China or Pyongyang. To stabilize this atmosphere and expand it, follow-up measures are required to solve the issues between the South and the North.
NK News: How did the last meeting in October go? Have you seen progress?
Wan: At every meeting, we decide which word to include or not, from among 25,000 vocabulary words. After selecting the vocabulary to include, we discuss how to interpret the word. Last September, we took a look at 24,100 words, and agreed to include 18,466. The leftovers are expected this time, possibly discussed next time or some of them will not be discussed anymore.
Due to the suspension of the project from 2010 to July 2014, for four years and seven months, the drop-out rate of words dropped out has increased. In the meeting in 2009, right before the suspension, we promised to make a list of the vocabulary to compile, but the meeting had fallen apart before we create the united list. Both sides should have prepared the united selection to include in the dictionary, through communication.
In the meeting in 2009, right before the suspension, we promised to make a list of the vocabulary to compile, but the meeting had fallen apart
NK News: Describe the meeting schedule when the two parties meet.
Hak: The meeting is conducted for six or seven days. We discuss for the whole day, excluding time to eat and sleep. The morning meeting is from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., and after lunch the meeting resumes from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sometimes we take a rest in the middle of day. Last October, it was for seven days, and we took a rest only once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
Wan: The fourth or fifth day is most difficult point. We are exhausted, and wish to go back home. After five days, there is a little bit of relief, thinking I will be home in two days. For six days, six groups examine 3,000 vocabulary words each. Two groups deal with new vocabulary and the other four groups take a look at existing vocabulary from dictionaries from the South and North.
The pressure to finish the task for each meeting on time is significant, as we have a deadline to meet by April 2019. The next meeting will be more burdensome, if we don’t finish the designated task for each meeting. We also should finish our tasks, keeping pace with other groups, to have a break time at the same time.
NK News: How do you prepare the meeting?
Wan: Before meeting, we exchange the list of the expressions we selected as the next meeting’s agenda. We send our draft to the North, and North Korean experts make some changes by removing, adding or revising. After we accept what we can accept, we discuss the leftovers at the upcoming meeting. The North does it likewise. We mark what we can accept and cannot, then send back to North. Despite this preparation, we should review more than half of the vocabulary.
NK News: What do you actually dispute? Are the differences originated from political system?
Wan: In North Korea, “comrade” (dongji) means revolutionary comrade, while it means close friend in South. The ideological difference has been reflected. The Gyeoremal Dictionary interprets it like “a friend who cooperates to achieve same purpose,” purifying the ideological meaning, but embracing the meaning of revolution.
Other than political differences, there are basic expressions we use in a different way. The word “cleanliness” (cheonggyeol) means “clear and clean” in South Korea, but it means to “clean up” in North Korea. Squid (ojingeo) and octopus (mooneo) are likewise. “Squid” in the South is “octopus” in the North. Similarly, in the North there’s no word to describe a moth. “Butterfly” includes both “moth” (na-bang) and “butterfly” (nabi).
NK News: Have you experienced any conflict during negotiation?
Wan: Yes, we undergo conflict originating from perspective on language. In the North, language is a means for ideological education, a powerful weapon to establish revolution. In the South, language is a means of communication. For example, the word “provocative” in South means “sensual, heady” which implies a sexual context. The North argued not to compile this, saying it is “unethical, harmful to the people’s culture,” thus not proper as a means to educate people. We stated that it is such a prevalent expression. We disputed this for about 10 minutes, took a rest for a moment, and repeated the discussion. Finally we agreed on compiling.
Another example was the title of the novel we cited a sentence. There’s a novel entitled Thief’s Diary, written by (South Korean novelist) Kim Yong-seong. North suggested finding different sentence from different novel, saying “How can thief write a novel?” (They said it) also undermines a “beautiful and fine custom.” From the North Korean perspective, a dictionary is not dedicated to delivering language information, but to educate people about ideology. In that case, we try to find an example sentence from other documents.
NK News: Do you talk about politically sensitive topics at all? Have you ever made mistakes?
Wan: We once made a mistake writing “North Korea” in the official document. In principle, we should use the “Southern side” and “Northern side.” It didn’t grow into a big problem. They just called us and warned us silently, during the break time. We sincerely apologized, and from then filtered every “taboo word” using the “control-F” function. There are approximate 20 words that could become a problem.
Last time, we included the example sentence of “a troop from Bukseon invaded.” We thought, “Bukseon is a name of a foreign country, but it was an abbreviation of Buk-Chosun, which means North Chosun. From then, we designated Bukseon as a “taboo word” and spot it before the meeting.
NK News: There is orthography that has not been agreed upon by both parties. How’s the dictionary compiled respecting which rule?
Wan: Currently, we are respecting the orthography agreed at Gyeoremal Format and Orthography Council. The parts we haven’t reached an agreement, are following each side’s orthography. The Korean alphabet giyeok (ㄱ), mieum (ㅁ), ieung (ㅇ), jieut (ㅈ), chieut (ㅊ)” are compiled by South Korean orthography, while other parts respect the North’s orthography. Eventually, every regulation will be agreed upon.
NK News: Staying together for more than a week, do you have any memorable episodes?
Wan: There’s a North Korean word ddak-chingu which means “best friend.” I am working in the fourth group, and my counterpart from the North and I really hit it off. First we used honorific form while speaking, and then we started mixing honorific form and crude language. I sometimes kick him for fun. The North Korean experts call us ddak-chingu. A strong bond has been formed between us, as we first met in 2009 and have been working together for almost seven years.
When we met after a four-year-and-seven-month gap, we hugged each other. When we say goodbye after the meeting, he doesn’t raise his face. He lowers his face and then just waves his hand. I guess it’s because he cannot be sure whether we can make it next time or not.
NK News: How was the atmosphere when the meeting was suspended?
Wan: There was a negative view from outside. “What are you guys doing, just killing the time?” I heard remarks like that. We were preparing for our next meeting, editing the drafts even though it was suspended. In our office, we tried to use that time to do things that we couldn’t do when the project was ongoing.
For example, the format of interpreting the same group of terms like do–gae–geol–yoot–mo from yootnori (the Korean traditional game), should be united. As a result, we created a guideline for interpretation, categorizing the group of expressions to make their interpretations united. It was not too depressing, and we managed to do what we hadn’t been able to do until then.
In 2009, the 20th meeting was organized in Shenyang, China. When finishing the meeting, it was the end of the year. The atmosphere of the supper had heightened, and the song entitled “See you again” played. Everybody stood up and played the train game. Even senior experts older than 70 joined the game. We ran together mixing Southern and Northern linguists. Moving one way, someone yelled “opposite side” and we all switched places.
Scattered culture and language is a kind of cultural asset
We shared new year’s greetings, saying “See you next year, happy new year.” Then we couldn’t meet for five years. “Have they stayed healthy? Are the elderly scholars alive?” It was so worrisome. When we reunited in 2014, it was really good to see them again staying healthy. In 2014, we played the train game again in Shenyang. I sang “See You Again” with a female expert from the North, hand in hand. It took four years and seven months to reunite. I feel so sorry to have failed to keep the promise “see you next year.”
NK News: What is the philosophy do you have, working on inter-Korean exchanges?
Hak: The cultural, linguistic commonality is very important. Scattered culture and language is a kind of cultural asset. I think South and North Koreans’ joint attempts to integrate them are very important. Even though inter-Korean relations are difficult, we need to think of the separate culture and politics. Working on inter-Korean exchanges, South has an advantage. We can gather national sympathy to advance the project. We need to have a mind to understand small differences, to expand from a small unification to larger unification.
Wan: Once we understand the language difference we can narrow the gap of our mindset, as we always use language. To make unification happen continuously, we need to unify the language first. I think this project is putting foundation stone for unification.
Featured Image: Joint Board of South and North Korea for the Compilation of Gyeoremal-Keunsajeon website
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