Tag Archives: North Korea

Pak Mi-ok

North and South Korea Face Increasing Linguistic Gap

Pictured above: North Korean defector Pak Mi-ok speaks during an interview in Seoul. (AP Photo/Hyung-Jin Kim)

by HYUNG-JIN KIM, Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — On one side of the line that has divided two societies for so long, the words arrive as fast as globalization can bring them — English-based lingo like “shampoo,” ”juice” and “self-service.” To South Koreans, they are everyday language. To defectors from the insular North Korea, they mean absolutely nothing.

Turn the tables, and the opposite is true, too: People in Seoul furrow their brows at homegrown North Korean words like “salgyeolmul,” which literally means “skin water.” (That’s “skin lotion” in the South.)

Two countries, mortal enemies, tied together by history, by family — and by language, but only to a point. The Korean Peninsula’s seven-decade split has created a widening linguistic divide that produces misunderstandings, hurt feelings and sometimes even laughter. The gap has grown so wide, scholars say, that about a third of everyday words used in the two countries are different.

North and South Koreans are generally able to understand each other given that the majority of words and grammar are still the same. But the differences show how language can change when one half of the country becomes an international economic powerhouse and the other isolates itself, suspicious of outside influences.

America’s huge cultural influence through its military presence, business ties and Hollywood has flooded the South Korean vernacular with English loan words and “konglish,” which uses English words in non-standard ways, like “handle” for steering wheel, “hand phone” for cellphone and “manicure” for nail polish.

In North Korea’s view, all that is just further evidence that the South is an American cultural colony.

When Pak Mi-ok first arrived in South Korea after her defection in 2002, she was told by a waitress at a restaurant that water was “self-service,” an English phrase she had not heard before. Too shy to admit she didn’t understand, she ended up going without water during her meal.

“I worried the waitress would look down on me,” said Pak. She started out working at restaurants but struggled to understand customers. “I thought they spoke a different language,” she said.

Pak gradually picked up on the new lingo, and in a recent interview she used words like “stress” and “claim” that aren’t heard up in the North.

The North’s isolation and near-worship of the ruling Kim family has also skewed the language. “Suryong” is the revered title for the North’s founding leader and his son, Kim Jong Il, the father of the current ruler, Kim Jong Un. But in the South it’s used to refer to a faction or local leader from centuries ago.

Pyongyang is so eager to “purify” its language under its guiding philosophy of self-reliance that it vigorously eliminates words with foreign origins and uses homegrown substitutes. Shampoo is called “meorimulbinu,” or “hair water soap,” and juice is “danmul,” or “sweet water.” Such differences fascinate and amuse South Koreans, who love to examine them on quiz and comedy shows.

Misunderstandings can arise to seemingly innocuous Korean phrases like, “Let’s do lunch sometime,” which those in the South frequently use as a friendly ending to conversations, even with casual acquaintances. But newly arrived North Korean defectors take such invitations literally, and are often dismayed or offended when they don’t get a follow-up phone call.

“If someone uses such empty words in North Korea, they’ll see their relations with others cut off and be branded as a faithless person,” said a defector who asked not to be identified because of worries that doing so would put family members in the North at risk.

Linguists say it takes about two years for North Korean defectors to feel comfortable conversing in South Korea.

The communication gap widens when it comes to technical terms used in medical and technological settings, according to Han Yong-un, a South Korean linguist. About two-thirds of medical terms are different, he said.

“I think that North and South Korean doctors cannot work together in the same operating room,” Han said.

Over the past 10 years, there have been efforts to produce a joint dictionary containing 330,000 words from both countries — a rare example of cooperation.

But as is often the case, political tensions have interfered with progress. The meetings only resumed last July after a more than four-year hiatus following the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship. A new round of meetings, tentatively set for last month, hasn’t been held as North Korea bristled over the annual springtime joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.

Even language experts from the two countries can have trouble understanding each other.

During last year’s meeting in Pyongyang, South Korean linguist Kim Byungmoon said he tried to explain how South Koreans use the English word “glamour” as a noun to refer to a voluptuous woman, but North Korean scholars had difficulty understanding its usage.

Given the completely different political and economic systems between the two countries, it also takes a while to learn the connotations and associations that some emotionally-laden words have.

In South Korea, “spec” refers to qualifications and credentials that college students need to land a good job. While defectors can quickly learn what the word literally means, it takes much longer to understand the immense stress associated with the word for young job-seekers in South Korea’s ultra-competitive society, said Jeon Young-sun, a research professor at Seoul’s Konkuk University.

Those in the South, meanwhile, may struggle to understand the emotional impact of “saenghwal chonghwa,” the regular meetings in the North at which people are required to reflect on their behavior and criticize each other. The phrase, which literally means “group discussions on daily lives,” isn’t used in South Korea.

“We were sick and tired of it,” Pak said. “I still get goose bumps whenever I hear that word.”


Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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South Korea to Penalize Kaesong Firms Complying with North’s Wage Hike Demand

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

The South Korea government announced Tuesday that it will penalize firms operating in an inter-Korean industrial complex that comply with North Korea’s unilateral decision to raise wages for North Korean workers, reports Yonhap News Agency.

An official from the South Korean Ministry of Unification told reporters that the government will soon send out a formal notice to companies operating in Kaesong industrial complex, asking them to not yield to North’s wage hike demand. Firms that comply with the demand will face sanctions, such as “restriction on company officials visiting the North or cuts in financial supports.”

On Feb. 24, North Korea announced a unilateral decision to raise the minimum monthly wage from USD $155.50 to $164.10 starting on April 10, with corresponding social insurance premiums by 15 percent.

If the measure is implemented, North Korea would earn about $450,000 in additional revenue from the Kaesong industrial complex, according to Yonhap.

About 124 South Korean companies operate in the Kaesong zone, with more than 50,000 North Korean employees. Since the ministry’s announcement, South Korean firms have voiced their concerns about incurring losses from North Korean workers refusing to work overtime to a complete withdrawal of its workforce from the complex.

The ministry, however, said that it will do its best to reduce losses to the South’s firms. It also noted that half of the South’s firms in Kaesong already possess government-sponsored insurance in case their factories are shut down due to inter-Korean tensions.

The Kaesong industrial complex was established as a symbol of cooperation in 2004 when South Korea was still pursuing the “Sunshine Policy,” a foreign policy that was intended to encourage interaction and economic assistance between the two Koreas.

“The only way to resolve the problem is consultations between the authorities of the two sides,” said the ministry official. “We have a problem with the process of North Korea’s decision (on the issue), not its demand for a wage increase itself.”


Featured image by Andrew Salmon/AFP

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President Park Geun-hye Visits Injured U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Monday made a surprise visit to the hospital to see U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert, who was knifed in the cheek and wrist by a leftist activist last week.

Lippert has been hospitalized since Thursday at Seoul’s Severance Hospital, where President Park received surgery in 2006 after she was slashed in the face by man wielding a box cutter during an election campaign.

“My heart ached to think that you suffered the same thing,” Park told Lippert during her visit, according to Yonhap News Agency.

Park reportedly called the U.S. envoy from Abu Dhabi on the day of the attack, wishing him a speedy recovery. During Park’s surprise visit, Lippert and his wife said they were moved by the consolations they received the South Korean people and government, according to the Associated Press.

After the attack, Lippert had undergone a two-hour surgery and received 80 stitches on his face. Doctors said Lippert has been recovering faster than expected and may be discharged as early as Tuesday afternoon.

Last Friday, Kim Ki-jong, the assailant, was formally charged with attempted murder, violence against a foreign envoy and obstruction of official duty. The 55-year-old assailant claimed that he attacked Lippert to end the annual joint military drills between South Korea and the U.S. and had no intention of murder.

South Korean media outlets reported that Kim had made seven trips to North Korea between 1999 and 2007. He also tried to build a memorial near Seoul City Hall for the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2011. The South Korean police are now investigating Kim’s links to North Korea.

Meanwhile, North Korea had applauded the attack, calling it a “deserved punishment for U.S. warmongers.”


Featured image via Yonhap News Agency

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Kim Ki Jong

Prosecutors Investigates North Korean Ties with U.S. Envoy Knife Assailant

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

South Korean prosecutors are looking into whether the knife attack on U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert had a “mastermind” behind it, Korea Herald reports.

Kim Ki-jong, a 55-year-old leftist activist, faces charges of attempted murder, violence against a foreign envoy and obstruction of official duty, according to his arrest warrant. He has claimed he acted alone, but several top South Korean officials, including President Park Geun-hye, urged law enforcement agencies to thoroughly investigate the crime and determine whether or not someone else was pulling the strings. The attack is being considered as an act of terrorism by pro-North Korean forces.

Police uncovered materials that indicated Kim’s pro-North Korean views during raids of his home and office, and they are seeking a warrant to look through his phone records. They believe Kim had planned the crime some 10 days in advance.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office is leading a “special probe team” of nearly 100 police officers and prosecutors, many of whom are versed in anti-communism and anti-terrorism.

Kim has told authorities he had attacked Lippert on his own to protest the joint military drills between the U.S. and South Koreawithout the intent to kill him. Lippert is now recovering and in stable condition after undergoing emergency surgery.

Kim’s political activities are well-known: He had visited North Korea seven times between 1999 and 2007, touring Mt. Geungangsan once and visiting the border city of Gaeseong multiple times with a left-wing civic group, according to the Korea Herald. In December 2011, Kim attempted to set up an altar near Seoul City Hall in memory of Kim Jong-il’s death that year.


Featured image via Yonhap News

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North Korea Applauds Knife Attack on U.S. Ambassador

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

North Korea has applauded the South Korean assailant’s knife attack on U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert, calling it a “deserved punishment” for America’s joint military drills with Seoul.

Lippert, 42, received 80 stitches to close a 4-inch gash on his cheek and sustained some nerve damage in his left hand. After a successful surgery, the U.S. ambassador tweeted that he was in “great spirits” and promised to return to his duties as soon as possible.

The attack occurred Thursday at 7:40 a.m. KST during a breakfast forum at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in central Seoul, where Lippert was scheduled to deliver a speech.

Lippert was starting to eat the first course of his breakfast when Kim Ki-jong, a 55-year-old political extremist, screamed, “South and North Korea should be reunified” before slashing the ambassador’s face and wrist with a 10-inch blade. Kim was immediately pinned to the ground and arrested by the police.

Witnesses described the incident to unfold too quickly for security to prevent the knife attack in time, according to Reuters.

North Korea’s state-run media, the Korean Central News Agency, later crowed that Kim delivered “knife slashes of justice.” The agency added that the attack reflected the South Korean people’s protests against the U.S. for raising tensions in the Korean Peninsula through joint military drills with Seoul, according to Yonhap.

The U.S. State Department condemned the violent attack, while South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the incident an “attack on the Korea-U.S. alliance” and phoned Lippert in the hospital, wishing him a speedy recovery.

The Associated Press noted that Kim is a well-known among police and activists as an anti-U.S. and Japan extremist. In 1985, Kim participated along with other hard-core protesters in slashing and burning the American flag on the embassy grounds. He was also sentenced to prison for three years in 2010 after throwing a piece of concrete at the Japanese ambassador to Seoul. In addition, he visited North Korea with a civic group eight times between 2006 and 2007, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

After his arrest on Thursday, Kim told police that he had attacked Lippert to protest the joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korea, claiming that it ruined efforts for reconciliation efforts between the two Koreas.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said it was the first time a foreign ambassador to South Korea had been injured in a violent attack.

Since his appointment last October, Lippert has proved himself to be a popular ambassador during his stay in Seoul, as he often posts updates on social media and regularly delivers speeches. His wife gave birth in the capital city, and the couple gave their son a Korean middle name.


Featured image via Yonhap/Reuters


Korean Canadian Pastor Reported Missing in North Korea

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

UPDATE (Thursday, March 5, 3 p.m. PST): Reverend Lim’s church and Canadian consular officials confirmed that he is being held by North Korean authorities, according to Wall Street Journal.

The Light Korean Presbyterian church said Lim’s family was notified by Canadian officials that the North Korean government had sent them a confirmation of his detainment.

A Korean Canadian pastor has lost contact with the Canadian government after visiting North Korea for humanitarian work, reports Reuters.

Reverend Hyeon-soo Lim, 60, has traveled to North Korea more than 100 times since 1997 to help oversee a nursing home, a nursery and an orphanage in the Rajin region, said Lisa Pak, the spokeswoman for the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

Lim entered North Korea through China on Jan. 31, and has since lost contact with his church, family and friends. The pastor was expected return from his trip on Feb. 4, but church officials were not alarmed, believing that Lim was delayed by North Korea’s quarantine of foreign travelers who may have been exposed to Ebola.

“We didn’t want to cause unnecessary hysteria, just make sure he is OK. He’s very non-political; he just wants to help the people,” said Pak, according to Reuters.

North Korea ended the quarantine program on Monday, but there has been no sign of Lim. Meanwhile, the Canadian government has advised against all travel to North Korea.

The North Korean government has a strict policy against proselytizing, as religion is seen as a threat to the ruling Kim family. Over the years, many Christian missionaries have been detained in the hermit kingdom.

Kenneth Bae, a missionary who entered North Korea in late 2012, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for alleged anti-government activities. After being detained for two years, Bae was released last November, along with fellow U.S. detainee Matthew Miller, who was formerly sentenced to prison for six years for alleged espionage.

Born in South Korea, Lim immigrated to Canada in 1986. He has a wife and an adult son.


Featured image via The Telegraph

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N.Korea Encourages Citizens to Play Sports to “Strengthen National Defense”

by STEVE HAN | @steve_han

Amid young leader Kim Jong-un’s incessant passion for basketball, North Korea is amping up efforts to ingrain sports into the daily lives of its citizens in the hermit kingdom.

A recent Yonhap News Agency report cited a North Korean official who said that the country is encouraging the citizens to play sports, such as basketball and soccer to “boost industrial output” and “strengthen national defense.” North Korea’s communist regime has even launched a new sports-exclusive government ministry, called the National Sports Guidance Committee, to promote sports among its people.

The ministry’s role is to set up to support the practice of playing sports at workplaces in various cities and counties within North Korea, according to Ri Chi-ung, vice director of the country’s Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports. Ri added that sports could help develop the impoverished country’s halting economy.

“People find themselves [to] do their work better amidst the sporting zeal,” Ri reportedly said. “And it gives full play to collectivism, and the love for their working places and home villages is going up remarkably.”

He added, “They feel more pleasant at their jobs and the spirit of helping and leading one another forward is prevailing in the factory. All this gives great energy to the effort to fulfill the national economic plan.”

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is known to have picked up his  love for basketball while he was studying in Switzerland during his teens. A fan of Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in the mid-90s, he even held an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang last year with former NBA star Dennis Rodman.


Featured image via Quazoo.com: North Korea national under-20 soccer team

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‘Hidden Treasures’ Features Artworks by North Korean Painters

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

There’s more to North Korean art than propaganda images of political leaders and rosy-cheeked farmers.

On Jan. 29, the Springtime Art Foundation launched their “Hidden Treasures of North Korea Revealed” exhibition at the Korea International Exhibition Center (KINTEX) in the city of Goyang, just north of Seoul. “Hidden Treasures” is a rare exhibit of North Korean art in South Korea, where most of the North’s cultural works are banned, since the two countries remain technically in a state of war.

BN-GR233_0128ic_J_20150128144014“Untitled” by Gong Chong-kwon (Springtime Art Foundation)

The exhibition features 150 paintings of 70 North Korean contemporary artists, including international award-winning painters such as Lim Ryol, Gong Chong-kwon, Choe Ha-taek, Jong Hwa, Shin Cheol-woong and Kim Il-soo. All of the paintings are nonpolitical and focus mainly on landscapes, portraits, still lifes and animals. According to the Wall Street Journal, many artworks seem to be painted with foreign buyers in mind, with brush strokes similar to Impressionist paintings.

One painting, for example, shows a woman in a bright red bikini, a stark contrast to the military garb or conservative dresses women are often depicted wearing in photographs.

la-et-cm-south-korea-hidden-treasures-of-north-005Painting by Kim Yong-chol (Springtime Art Foundation)

Koen De Cuester, an expert on North Korean art at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told Agence-France Presse that the painting was most likely “exclusively painted for the foreign market” and was probably not exhibited in North Korea.

“Just because a painting hails from North Korea, does not make it representative of North Korean art,” De Cuester said in a phone interview. “They produce a lot that caters explicitly to foreign tastes — or what they perceive foreign tastes to be — and the artistic merit of those works is questionable, no matter how well executed.”

Springtime Art Foundation’s art collector Frans Broersen, 63, and his partners have made several visits to North Korea since 2005 to buy paintings in bulk. Their collection has about 2,500 works, most of which came from Pyongyang’s Mansudae Art Studio, where the country’s top artists mostly churn out propaganda artworks that glorify the ruling Kim family.

“We saw North Korea as a place to acquire some very high standard works at low prices, and we’re now hoping for a return on that investment,” Broersen said, according to the LA Times.

The foundation has already held exhibitions of North Korean art in Latvia and Lithuania, the latter drawing 50,000 visitors from more than 10 countries.

“Hidden Treasures” will remain open at KINTEX until March 6.


Images via Springtime Art Foundation/Wall Street Journal

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