Every week, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Today’s question comes from Weiyu Chen: Do North Koreans truly understand Hanja (Chinese characters) words such as in legal jargon, “four character phrases” (idioms) and propaganda material?
Yes, we learn Chinese characters (referred to as Hanja) in North Korea from elementary school to the senior year of high school in the North. North Korean society changes rapidly, and there could have been some changes to the education system since I left.
From what I have seen in South Korea, the way South Koreans learn Hanja isn’t different from the way North Koreans learn it.
It is thought that North Koreans who have successfully graduated from high school normally hold an adequate level of Hanja. But you cannot say that all of them know sophisticated Hanja characters, which are not frequently used in daily life unless the individuals make extra efforts to memorize them.
In my case, I always wanted to learn Chinese. I memorized 3000 characters of Hanja by myself in my spare time. I thought it would help me to master Chinese faster. However, I ended up moving to South Korea unexpectedly. As a result, I didn’t get a chance to learn Chinese in North Korea.
I always thought that I could put my knowledge of Hanja to use some day – I was never wrong about that! When I was enrolled at a university in Seoul, I signed up for Chinese courses. It turned out that I knew way more Hanja than South Korean students in my class. Whenever sophisticated Hanja came up in class, my professor would ask to see if any of the students knew those characters.
I was always the only one who knew the answer to the professor’s question. My professor always said “Yoo-sung, I should say that your Chinese pronunciation isn’t that good to be honest. However, you already know so many Hanja. I must compliment you on that.” Thanks to my knowledge of Hanja from North Korea, I received a high grade in that Chinese class.
You also asked if we learn four character phrases (referred to as Saja Sung O) in North Korea as well. Yes, we do. It occurs to me that South Koreans learn a wide variety of Saja Sung O. While North Koreans learn a variety of Hanja continuously all throughout their school years, we do not concentrate on Saja Song O as much as South Koreans do. When I was in North Korea, I didn’t know that 유언비어 was a Saja Song O.
However, 유언비어 is one of the most frequently used Saja Song O in North Korea. Of course, North Koreans fully understand the meaning of 유언비어. To provide an explanation for American readers, 유언비어 is a rumor that spreads which is not based on reliable evidence.
The reason why 유언비어 is the most frequently used and most familiar Saja Song O to North Koreans is because it is always quoted by the regime, which says that anyone who spreads 유언비어 about the government and Kim family will have to stand in a court of law.
That’s why 유언비어 is the most familiar Saja Song O for North Koreans, but South Koreans use them way more often than North Koreans. South Korean politicians often quote Saja Song O in their speeches and interviews. I believe that it is never bad to know a lot of Saja Song O since these four character phrases contain deep meanings but are brief.
One can barely find any Hanja at all in North Korean news, government documents, or propaganda. Citizens are encouraged to express and write everything in Hangul and refrain from writing them in Hanja. In newspapers and on television programs of South Korea, you see Hanja occasionally.
But it doesn’t happen as often in North Korea. Yet, North Koreans use Hanja way more often in daily life, but the use of Hanja is discouraged in the public documents and propaganda.
In daily life, North Koreans often say such expressions as “육질 of this beef is very good”: 육질 in this sentence is purely Hanja. 육 refers to meat (肉) and 질 refers to the quality (質) in Hanja. Likewise, ordinary North Koreans often use Hanja words and expressions in everyday life.
Written by Yoo-sung Kim
Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Featured image by Adam Westerman