About the Author
View more articles by In-hua Kim
In-hua Kim is a pseudonym for a North Korean defector writer. She left the DPRK in 2018, and now resides in South Korea.
Welcome back to Ask a North Korean, where NK News readers like yourself ask questions to and have them answered by our North Korean writers.
This time our question comes from Cayla, who says she “was wondering what a speaker of the North Korean dialect perceives as the largest differences [between the North and South Korean dialects].”
Just like many other countries and regions, there are different dialects and accents all across the Korean peninsula. And, due to over 70 years of separation, ‘North Korean Korean’ and ‘South Korean Korean’ have ended up evolving in very different ways.
Sometimes even native English speakers can have trouble understanding other native English speakers from different parts of their own country — so you can imagine how difficult it must be for the average North Korean defector, who has likely had zero contact with the other side of the 38th parallel, to properly communicate with people in the South!
One of the biggest differences between the two versions of Korean is actually the use of English loanwords in South Korea, a result of influence from the West that hasn’t been able to reach North Korea.
Today, In-hua Kim kindly takes us through some personal experiences of misunderstanding she’s had since coming to the South.
Got a question for In-hua? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
It has been almost 10 months since my family arrived in South Korea. Time passes by very quickly.
I first set foot in South Korea after getting off the plane at Incheon International Airport — a journey unimaginable while I was in North Korea.
Through my five months at Hanawon’s resettlement program, I was overwhelmed with the love for and from my fellow Koreans in the South.
I would like to take this opportunity and express my gratitude to the teachers at Hanawon. They were ever so kind and passionate about what they do.
In particular, the lecturer for the ‘South Korean language’ was very amusing. The teacher was fluent in the North Korean dialect, just like us native North Koreans.
I send my regards to the teachers who taught me about different dialects in South Korea, as well as the foreign words deeply embedded in South Korean Korean.
Their hard work shouldn’t be in vain, yet I feel sorry because I am struggling in my daily life despite all of their diligent teaching.
I know nothing about English and I have no clue about these foreign loanwords
After having completed the Hanawon program, my husband and I stayed with my daughter for a few days to be an extra hand for her 4-month-old son.
One morning, my daughter and I were waiting at the bus stop, my grandson in my arms. He looked especially adorable that day and his face was glowing.
Caressing him, my daughter said, “mom, isn’t he looking really pretty today?” and then asked, “what did you put on his face today? Why is it so beaming?” I told her that I applied some lotion.
“You did? Which one?” she asks. “You know, the one in a tube.” “The one in a tube? Which tube?”
She kept prying and finally figured what I meant. “Mom, that’s the oil for lowering body heat. You should’ve put on the facial serum, no wonder he’s glowing today!”
Oblivious of the passengers who were giving us glances, she kept laughing out loud. “Why wouldn’t you just ask if you didn’t know? You can’t just put whatever on his face!”
Embarrassed, I retorted, “I am sure they are all good for the baby. Why’s this so funny anyway? I just didn’t know.”
I was then reminded of something another defector had said, that life in South Korea would be a lot easier if there were no foreign loanwords.
I know nothing about English and I have no clue about these foreign loanwords. The cosmetics basket in her house is full of items with foreign names, and obviously I didn’t know what was what.
I at least tried to pick the one that had the best fragrance. But my efforts just ended up being laughed at.
In another incident, my younger daughter came from Incheon to visit my older daughter.
In the evening, my older daughter suggested, “Mom, let’s have shabu-shabu since my sister is also here!”
“Eh? What’s that?” I asked. “Is it like jijim (Korean pancake) you make with flour and egg?”
She started giggling, again. “How long until you get familiar with what people eat in the South? It’s a hotpot dish, greens and sliced meat you cook at the table.”
Since then, I usually decline when my daughters invite me to dine out. If I go and am asked what I would like to eat, I just say “whatever,” and eat quietly whether I like the food or not.
Being self-conscious of my North Korean accent, I usually stay silent wherever I go. It’s hard to even mimic the South Korean accent because I have lived my entire life, 50 years, in Ryanggang Province, North Korea.
One day, a technician came home to install the internet at my place. But while I was talking with him, I found myself saying “what?” over and over again.
He was even harder to understand than other South Koreans. I asked where he was from and he said he was from Busan (a city on the southern coast of the peninsula). The Busan dialect sounded so different.
North Korea also has a lot of different regional accents, but it’s just that — different pronunciation, not the words themselves.
It’s possible that the different North Korean accents were never an issue for me because all of my family was born in Pyongyang and I was raised in Ryanggang, so I experienced a bit of diversity.
That I was married to a soldier may have helped as well, since soldiers usually come from all over the country.
When someone calls my cellphone I usually just hand it to my daughter so she can answer it on my behalf
On my birthday, my husband and I dined at a restaurant with my daughters’ families, and we went to my older daughter’s place afterwards.
As I was walking in, I heard my oldest son-in-law grumbling from inside: “Everything’s been robbed.”
I was taken aback — “Your home was robbed?!? What was stolen?!!”
My daughters burst, shaking with laughter. “Mom, he was referring to his virtual home online, not our real house!” They started crying they were laughing so hard.
My younger daughter had immediately understood what her brother-in-law was saying, but my husband and I, who know nothing about online computer games, thought that their house had literally been broken into.
Considering all this, how could anyone expect me to speak in public? When someone calls my cellphone I usually just hand it to my daughter so she can answer it on my behalf.
When I’m not with her, I usually don’t answer the phone unless the caller already knows that I am North Korean. I’m afraid of answering phone calls because of my accent.
My daughter answered almost all the questions when I went for a job interview. She told my employer, “My mother doesn’t like talking and prefers staying quiet because she doesn’t speak with a South Korean accent.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, “please take it easy. North Koreans are the same Koreans as us in the South. Feel free to talk and get along with everyone.”
I was very thankful. I have some sewing skills so was looking for a job at a garment factory, but was concerned that I might not be admitted because I am North Korean. So I was very happy when they accepted me with no misgivings.
I have not yet spoken with a South Korean accent. If I ever have, it would have just been a “hello” or a “thank you.”
I’m going to try and learn more ‘South Korean Korean’ and foreign loanwords since I’m going to have more of a social life now.
Young North Koreans like my daughters seem to adjust to South Korean society quickly, but older people like my husband and me have a hard time, in part due to our accents. It’s been the biggest hurdle to our resettlement.
After Chuseok, I will be starting my first day at work. I’m going to do my best to lead a happy life with my family in this good world.
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Morsky Studio