North Korean with a Swiss German accent?

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The video embedded in this article features North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un speaking at the historic summit meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone yesterday:

"Hang on, what language is Kim Jong-un speaking?  Livestreaming reveals that the North Korean leader has a unique ‘Swiss-influenced’ accent, a result of his years studying at a German-language boarding school near Bern", Crystal Tai, SCMP (4/27/18).

I showed the video to half-a-dozen native speakers of Korean from South Korea and a couple of Americans with native fluency in South Korean.  They all said they could understand what Kim said very easily, that his North Korean accent was not very strong, and that he only bore the slightest trace of an alleged Swiss German accent, if at all.

Here are some of the pertinent comments I received:

1. He has a bit of the Pyongyang accent (intonation) in his speech, but his accent is not very strong. In fact, I did not have any problem understanding him.

I am not sure if he has a Swiss accent. He lived in Switzerland only for three years when he was a teenager (14-16 years old), so it is not likely that he acquired a Swiss accent.

2. I listened to the video and he definitely has a [North Korean] accent.  But because many Korean movies involving North Korea have portrayed these accents, I don't feel too unfamiliar or strange hearing Kim Jong-un talk.

I listened to Swiss/German accents and listened to him talk again!

I do hear some strange Swiss accent mixed in, and I think it might be an influence from his Swiss boarding school.

3. Kim's speech does have an accent! I am not sure if this is given information (if this is published online) but I heard that Kim was educated in Switzerland so maybe that is the reason behind the accent?

4. I couldn't hear much of anything like a Swiss German tinge to his speech. To me, his speech sounded a lot less distinctively northern, and a lot more like the South Korean standard, than I had expected!

Maybe Kim Jong-un has been secretly watching lots of South Korean movies and soap operas and has been listening to K-Pop behind closed doors.


"Is Korean diverging into two languages?" (11/8/14)

"'Bad' borrowings in North Korean" (12/3/16)

"Headlessness in North Korean propaganda" (||10/30/17)

"Pitch in Korean dialects" (12/17/17)

"Hockey language divergence between North Korea and South Korea" (2/11/18)

[Thanks to Haewon Cho, Irene Do, Shelley Shim, and Bob Ramsey]


  1. B.Ma said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 3:33 am

    Are there that many Swiss or German Koreans, whose speech is routinely heard in Korea, that particular features are actually audible and identifiable as being "Swiss"?

    Some of my family has lived in (northwest) Germany for decades and I can't hear any particular "German" features of their Cantonese, though when they speak English it sounds like native Germans speaking English.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 4:10 am

    I just listened to the whole speech. I'm not familiar with Korean, but neither the consonants ([pʰ kʰ tɕʰ]) nor the intonation (Swiss German puts low pitch on stressed syllables, not high like most of the rest of the non-tonal world) are Swiss. I can't guarantee that intervocalic voicing is still there (all Swiss German obstruents are voiceless all the time), but I think it is.

  3. RP said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 5:22 am

    While I'm not familiar with Korean or Swiss German, it does seem intuitively unlikely that two or three years spent in Switzerland a fairly long time ago would have a lasting effect on his native speech at home in his own country. Perhaps this is primarily an explanation conjured by non-linguists who hear something they find slightly odd about his accent and try to find an explanation for it?

    "Maybe Kim Jong-un has been secretly watching lots of South Korean movies and soap operas and has been listening to K-Pop behind closed doors."

    This strikes me as entirely possible. He would certainly have the ability to do that and you can see why he might take an interest. We know he recently attended and enjoyed the two-hour K-Pop concert in Pyongyang; we can't rule out that he was already a fan.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 5:33 am

    The Mandarin (or Cantonese or whatever) of a few of my in-laws and close Chinese friends who have lived in America for many years and who are very much "into" American culture and enamored of English language is noticeably affected by our speech patterns. The Sinitic speech habits of others, who stick to themselves and don't interact intensely with the surrounding society where they live, are minimally affected even after half a century.

    Conversely, when I live in China or Taiwan for extended periods of time, I find that my speech in English is affected by Mandarin modes of expression, to the extent that I sometimes smile at myself for what I have just said.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 6:02 am

    From a colleague who has been studying Korean intensively for more than half a century:

    I can't speak to the Swiss accent anomaly. The article seems to explain that aspect satisfactorily. Beyond that, there are significant differences between the Korean spoken in the north and south. Besides the lexical differences pointed out in the article, pronunciation varies dramatically. I'm reading a Korean novel, a fictionalized account of a Sino-Korean war. The Koreas had united before war with China erupted, so to add authenticity, the author captures North Korean speech in hangul as it (presumably) really is.

    And I have a terrible time with it.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 6:32 am

    Within the last decade or so, I have been amazed at how native-sounding and fluent the English of individuals from other nations who have never been to an English-speaking country often is.



    a Romanian waitress working in a German restaurant

    a Nepali barista working at a coffee/tea shop in the Hong Kong airport

    a Czech youth working in a restaurant in southern Germany

    a Bangladeshi youth working at a restaurant in the Czech Republic

    an Italian youth working in a hotel in England

    an M.A. student at Penn who learned English only from her non-native (to English) teachers in China


    The list is endless. The English of such individuals is frequently so natural and idiomatic that I find it to be uncanny. Their intonation, vocabulary, expressions, and gestures are all so authentically American or British or whichever model of English they have chose to adopt (usually it is American English) that I am stunned. The experience of hearing a young person from a non-English speaking society speaking perfect English in some other non-English speaking country is uncanny. So stunned am I to hear such superb English from a non-native that I will often ask them how they achieved the feat. Usually the answer they give me is along the lines that "I love to watch American films, TV shows, etc. and I model my speech closely on what I hear in them".

    This, I believe, is the product of the globally connected internet, by means of which individuals throughout the whole world have free and ready access to the media of all countries that participate in it.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 6:36 am

    From Barom Chon:

    Well it’s different from your typical Seoulite accent for sure. Having said that, standard North Korean, called 文化語 [VHM: "cultured language"], is based on the dialect spoken in Kyungki Province, areas surrounding Seoul.

    Actually this is more evident in any remaining speech samples from the other two Kim’s who preceded this one. As for German/Swiss accents, I just can’t call it simply because I don’t know German.

  8. Jenny Chu said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 11:12 pm

    I remember being taught that people tend to adopt the speech patterns (consciously or unconsciously) of those they perceive to be prestigious. What does this mean for Mr. Kim's accent?

  9. David Marjanović said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 4:17 am

    "I love to watch American films, TV shows, etc. and I model my speech closely on what I hear in them".

    I've known a Slovak who learned fluent German this way, in Slovakia, specifically mentioning the TV channel RTL.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 10:31 pm

    From a native speaker of South Korean:

    I just listened to the video, but I am not sure if it is Swiss accent. But he definitely has a strange accent!

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