In North Korea, it's a dire crime to speak like a South Korean

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But almost everybody does it.  You can barely avoid it.  Especially if you're an athlete.

"North Korea sentences 20 young athletes for ‘speaking like South Koreans’"

Skaters and skiers were caught on video using banned words while playing a game during training.

Jieun Kim, RFA (4/13/23)

The first two paragraphs of the article:

About 20 aspiring North Korean winter athletes were abruptly sentenced to three to five years of hard labor in prison camps after they were found to have used South Korean vocabulary and slang while playing a word game, sources in the country say.

It’s the latest example of authorities imposing draconian punishments to try to stamp out use of the “puppet language” and “capitalist” influences in daily life – despite the flood of illegal South Korean dramas and songs that many North Koreans secretly watch after obtaining them on thumb drives smuggled into the country.

Here's how it happened:

Apparently, one of the athletes took a video of the young people playing a word game called mal kkori itgi, where the object is to make a sentence that starts with the final word of the previous player’s sentence, and some of the athletes used vocabulary that was distinctly South Korean….

The video was found on the phone of one of the female athletes during a random inspection raid by police of her home – a frequent occurrence in North Korea when police look for contraband – and was reported to authorities….

Sources didn’t give any examples of the offending words or phrases, but in recent cases North Korean authorities have punished people for using South Korean terms of endearment that equate to “honey,” or various loan words that have been borrowed from English or other languages – which North Korea rejects as “capitalist.”

Though North and South Koreans speak a mutually intelligible language, there are differing dialects throughout the country, and the language has developed differently north and south of the border after the 1950-53 Korean War. 

RFA previously reported numerous instances of people being punished for speaking like South Koreans, and also shocking cases where people were executed for trying to sell contraband videos and music on thumb drives or micro SD cards.

But with illegal South Korean movies and TV shows easily distributed among the public on thumb drives and micro SD cards, most young people have gotten used to how Korean sounds South of the border, often speaking that way themselves. 

The North Korean government recently passed the Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Act, which underscores that the Pyongyang dialect is the standard language, and doles out severe punishments for speaking like a South Korean, or the death penalty for teaching others how to.

What’s more, the parents of the offending athletes were also punished: They lost their prestigious official positions and their families were deported to the rural countryside, the first source said.

Language wise, North Korea is in a losing battle with South Korea.


Selected readings

[h.t. Mark Metcalf]


  1. Mark S. said,

    April 21, 2023 @ 8:34 am

    Late last year the North also decided that Korean names without final consonants are “anti-socialist.” Apparently the South has a lot of such soft-sounding names.

    I wonder if North Korea will finally just get it over with and adopt Klingon. But Klingon is probably too wussy for them.

  2. Joshua K. said,

    April 22, 2023 @ 4:47 pm

    @Mark S.: From what I can find, Kim Jong-un's wife is Ri Sol-ju, and his daughter is Kim Ju-ae, both of whose names end with vowel sounds, so it's not clear how strict they are in terms of requiring names to end with consonant sounds.

  3. Candy Windrow said,

    April 25, 2023 @ 1:59 pm

    That being said, the North Korean government does place great emphasis on promoting the country's distinct culture and language, which is often referred to as "Pyongyang dialect." North Koreans are encouraged to speak this dialect and to avoid adopting South Korean expressions or accents. Dordle

  4. Mark S. said,

    April 26, 2023 @ 8:51 am

    @Joshua K.: They wouldn't be the world's first politicians to espouse Do as I say, not as I do.

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