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That Was Awkward: North and South Korean Language Barriers Posted by on Oct 5, 2016 in Culture, Grammar, Korean Language

There is a very good chance you will never meet, let alone speak Korean to, a North Korean (북한국인). But if you did meet, say, a defector or diplomat, chances are you would test out your Korean (한국어) in order to build a trust and strike common ground, right?  But would they understand your South Korean?

Last year, I wrote an article highlighting some of the vocabulary differences, mainly focusing on the different dialects. There are a number of subtle differences between North Korean speech (북한말) versus (대) South Korean (남한말).

For example, a common ice-breaker between foreigners ( 외국인) and younger Korean children is a game of rock, paper, scissors, which has a group play version, meaning it is essential to learn how to walk away. In South Korea, it is called 가위바위보; but in North Korea, it is literally called scissors fist, 가위주먹, a bit of a harsher tone and meaning.

Some more interesting differences you might run across during your humanitarian mission:

  • Don’t ask if they want a donut (도넛) because in NK it is called spindle or ring bread (가락지빵)
  • If you want to know about their access to food, protein (단백질) interestingly literally means small eggs (계란소) in North Korean
  • Should you want to buy them a caramel macchiato during the conversation, caramel (캐러멜) has the less appealing translation of “oily candy” (기름 사탕)
  • On that note, maybe don’t offer them a sausage (소시지) because in North Korean it literally translates as “measly boiled meat” (삶은고기순대)
  • At this point, if you want to avoid the misunderstandings by using sign language (수화), you are actually using “finger words” (손가락말)

And sometimes the difference in vowels and the resulting new–or old, depending on how you look at it–spelling can make some hilarious outcomes. For example, “wife”, or ah-nae (아내), in North Korea is an-hae (안해), which can also be understood to mean, “Do not do.”

Even giving a present, sun-mul (선물) can be difficult. In North Korea, sun-mul is reserved only for the Dear Leaders, both living and dead. And if that gift was “Made in America” (mije, 미제), for North Koreans, mije means “American Imperialist”.

It is said that only about a quarter of North Koreans can understand South Koreans perfectly. This led to the creation of Univoca, an app that translates unknown South Korean words into North Korean. The app has about 3,600 unique translations.

However, learning Korean in North Korea is just about the same as anywhere around the globe:

Undoubtedly faced with some kind of language barrier, even when speaking to them in their own language, I say just go for it; or just nod and smile and rely on body language.

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About the Author: Tony Kitchen

Tony is a seasoned traveler who lived in Busan, South Korea from 2008-2012. While living in South Korea, he traveled extensively around Asia. After leaving, he spent 100 days traveling from Russia to Germany and many places in between. Currently, he lives and works in Budapest, Hungary, focusing on South Korean and East Asian business. Tony has an M.A. in International Relations with a specific focus on South Korean-U.S. relations and North Korea.