It would not be an exaggeration to say that old Korea was a cultural colony of China: Chinese culture had unquestionable prestige on the peninsula until the 19th century.
In fact, it was the only culture considered worthy. Classical Chinese was the language of literature, politics, and any civilized discussion.
Despite the fact that the Korean alphabet was developed under the patronage of King Sejong – arguably, the greatest monarch in the Korean history – it soon went into relative obscurity for centuries, as the elite hated their native language purely because it was not Chinese.
It should therefore be of no surprise that the Korean language itself ended up being partially swallowed by Chinese – more than 70% of Korean words are of Chinese origin.
Old Korea was a cultural colony of China
Given that Chinese and Korean grammar is very different, this resulted in a peculiar phenomenon: that Korean can be partially written in Chinese script.
This is true for both North and South variations of the language. For example, let’s look at perhaps the most common sentence in the North Korean language: The Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung taught the following…
위대한 수령 김일성동지께서 다음과 같이 교시하시였습니다
偉大한 首領 金日成同志께서 다음과 같이 敎示하시였습니다
The two examples above show the same sentence written in standard and mixed script. The underlined words are those of Chinese origin and thus can be written in Chinese characters.
For decades, nearly all text written in “high Korean” — laws, academic articles, novels, news — were written in the mixed script.
There was no particular reason for this, apart from prestige. The use of mixed script signaled that the author knew the holy characters of the blessed land of China and was thus enlightened.
Naturally, with the coming of modern society, things were bound to change. The place of the most important foreign language was taken away from Chinese by English in the South and Russian in the North – and Korean writing began to change accordingly.
ABOLITION OF THE CHARACTERS
In South Korea, this process took decades, as mixed script only really died out at the beginning of the 21st century. Even now, there are still a few eccentric writers who occasionally use it.
In North Korea, the end to mixed script came much earlier – in the 1940s. There are no available documents outlawing it, which leads to speculation as to why it happened.
North Korea asserts that it, as everything in the country at the time, happened due to the wise instructions of Kim Il Sung. However, there is no objective evidence to support this claim, and Kim Il Sung – a fluent Chinese speaker – has not been reported at the time as having any particular animosity towards the Chinese script.
In fact, there is a good chance that the orchestrator of the reform was Kim Tu Bong. The formal head of the Workers’ Party until 1949, this man had, in theory, high authority in the country (in the beginning, the Soviets even said that “we have two Leaders, two Kims”).
However, Kim Tu Bong knew little about politics. His passion was linguistics and traditional culture – meaning that it was possibly he who ordered script reform.
Chinese characters were thus rejected as another vestige of the feudal past. But this is not the end of the story.
In the 1960s, everyone in the world who spoke Chinese – as a native or foreign language – faced something unprecedented when Beijing altered the Chinese characters themselves.
Imagine that you learn, say, Spanish or German, and one day you hear that Madrid or Berlin has decided to adopt Cyrillic instead of Latin script. That would be the level of shock Chinese speakers experienced in the 1960s.
Chairman Mao commands that the characters are to be altered – who are you, comrade Kim, to question his wisdom?
The reform largely aimed to alter the way some complex characters were written, removing parts of them and using simpler elements for others. The way simplification was conducted was mocked in Taiwan (Traditional characters are on the left, Simplified characters are on the right):
After the Simplification reform one could not see 見 any friends 親/亲, there is no heart 心 in love 愛/爱, births 產/产 do not bring life 生, factories 廠/厂are empty, there is no wheat 麥 for noodles 麵/面, no cars 車 for a ride 運/运. Guides 導/导 to not know the roads 道 they walked, sons 兒/儿 were beheaded.
They fly 飛/飞 without wings 翼, their streams 湧/涌 to not carry any force力, there is no rain 雨 in their clouds 雲/云, no young men 郎 in villages 鄉/乡 and their wise men 聖/圣 have neither ears 耳 nor mouths 口. They move forward 進/进, but their way leads not to virtue 佳, but to the bottom of a well 井.
Naturally, the mainland defended their changes as progressive reform – not just because it made writing simpler, but also because the ways some of the old characters had been written had had unfortunate implications, which resulted in the following counter-joke:
After the Simplification reform there is no darkness 黑 in the Party黨/党, there are talents 才 in regiments團/团, the country 國/国 has a treasure玉, love 愛/爱 is founded on friendship 友, and while beauty 美 and goodness 善 remain the same, ugliness 醜/丑 has no demons 鬼 in it.
Poor 窮/穷 people no longer have to bow 躬, while power 權/权 has lost its charm 佳. The things which stand firm 鞏/巩 can no longer change 革 and those loyal to their principles 堅/坚 are no longer someone else’s subjects 臣.
Cars 車/车 no longer run across the fields 田. Now, these are not just deer 鹿 who are beautiful 麗/丽, warlocks 巫 can no longer possess men 靈/灵, water 水 does not bring extinction 滅/灭 and those who plow 墾/垦 are no longer threatened by wolves 狼.
A meritorious deed 勞/劳 will no longer be consumed by flames 火, songs 曲 are no longer for ceremonies 禮/礼 and one would not raise a hand 手 to strike 擊/击 another.
There is no longer any bitterness 辛 in our deeds 辦/办. And as for you, Taiwan 臺灣/台湾, you now have neither happiness 吉, nor the very speech 言!
For North Korea, the choice seemed obvious. By 1964, the country was a close ally of the PRC, supporting Beijing in their conflict with Moscow, and had no relations with the Republic of China’s government in Taipei.
North Koreans start with the most important characters: those needed to write the names of the Kims
Yet Pyongyang decided that, while they would use Simplified Chinese per Beijing’s wishes, not only would they keep Traditional characters for their mixed script but they would even start teaching them in schools.
In 1964, Kim Il Sung gave a speech saying that the characters be learned again – because South Koreans also used them, they would be necessary for inter-Korean communication.
Because South Korea made the same script choice (natural for Seoul, which maintained diplomatic relations with the ROC until August 1992), the decision to keep Traditional characters in the North seems obvious to us now.
However, back then, in 1960, it was not. Chairman Mao commanded that the characters are to be altered – who are you, comrade Kim, to question his wisdom?
This was one of the first signs that relations between the PRC and the DPRK were not that rosy – and when China went into full Cultural Revolution-mode, decisions made about Chinese characters resulted in the Sino-North Korean split of the late 1960s.
The situation has not changed that much since the 1960s. Mixed script using Traditional characters is still taught in North Korean schools.
Naturally, North Koreans begin with the most important characters: those needed to write the names of the Kims. However, just by looking at them – 金, 日, 成, 正, 恩 – one can see that these are definitely not exactly the simplest ones.
What about the Chinese language? Interestingly, it is not very well taught in the DPRK, although when it is taught Koreans obviously learn Simplified characters.
There are two reasons as to why Chinese remains a rather obscure language in the North.
The first is the power of tradition. Initially, like good citizens of a Soviet satellite state, North Koreans had to learn Russian as their main foreign language.
However, the 20th century saw the rise of English to the status of a universally accepted lingua franca, and the DPRK, following this trend, ordered that most of its students learn English, while a minority learn Russian.
The second reason is that having even basic Chinese language skills would be of great asset to those who would escape the DPRK. This is normally done through crossing the border to China – and if you speak Chinese you are much less likely to be caught.
Therefore the language is only supposed to be taught at university level.
Of course, Pyongyang University of Foreign Languages is a remarkable institution and its graduates – in striking contrast to those who, say, graduate from Kim Il Sung University – possess very high language skills, but they are a small minority of the country.
Yet, as it is often the case in 21st century North Korea, the market won over the state. High demand for Chinese classes in the borderland – for trade, smuggling, work with tourists, or escape plans – resulted in a rise of private Chinese education.
Thanks to this, some North Koreans managed to truly master the language.
As for the characters themselves, both Koreas came to the same result – the Traditional-based mixed script is almost dead, and Chinese classes are done solely in Simplified characters. Given how different these two countries are in many other respects, this is quite something.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that old Korea was a cultural colony of China: Chinese culture had unquestionable prestige on the peninsula until the 19th century.In fact, it was the only culture considered worthy. Classical Chinese was the language of literature, politics, and any civilized discussion.Despite the fact that the Korean alphabet was developed under the patronage of
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.