In North Korea, it's a dire crime to speak like a South Korean, part 2

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This is a language war that has been going on for years, and there will never be an end to it, so long as there is a communist North Korea and a democratic South Korea.  It is as deadly as a shooting war, because people die for using the language of the enemy.  I'm not talking about the content of their speech, but rather its very nature.

North Koreans face execution for using South Korean idioms

The Times (6/30/23)

How does this work out in practice?

North Koreans who use the “obsequious” accent and expressions of South Korea face execution under a harsh new law aimed at eliminating South Korea's growing influence on the language used by its communist neighbour.

"[The new law] is mostly focused on a new crime 'Using the Puppet Way of Speaking'."
According to a translation of the new law by Peter Ward, a British scholar of North Korea, the law criminalises anyone using the "obsequious lilt" of South Korean language, as well as South Korean idioms, spellings and even fonts.
This all sounds ludicrous, but, as AntC observes:
One shouldn't be flippant: 20 young athletes and their families were rusticated. Presumably anybody caught with 'bootleg' thumb drives / phones / computers with S.Korean spoken material will be seriously punished.

Even to the point of death.


Selected readings

[Thanks to AntC]


  1. Jeffrey Mills said,

    July 3, 2023 @ 1:50 pm

    I'd rather see "authoritarian vs democratic", or even "authoritarian vs free". Implying authoritarian = communist leaves out many other forms of authoritarianism.

  2. bks said,

    July 3, 2023 @ 2:38 pm

    "communist North Korea"? Hardly!

    SEOUL, Dec 16 (Reuters) – The private sector has overtaken state-led agents to become North Korea's biggest economic actor over the past decade, a sign of booming markets allowed by leader Kim Jong Un, South Korea's Unification Ministry said on Thursday. …

  3. David Marjanović said,

    July 3, 2023 @ 2:52 pm

    Yeah, Juche is a rather fascist ideology. I don't know if the Party is still organized in a Leninist way, as it is in China.

  4. Philip Anderson said,

    July 3, 2023 @ 5:20 pm

    @Jeffrey Mills
    Don’t forget that for the decades the confrontation was between the “Democratic” Republic of Korea in the north, and a far-from-democratic, authoritarian republic in the south. Authoritarian certainly doesn’t equal communist, nor does anti-communist equal democratic or free. And even some democratic governments are becoming authoritarian and illiberal nowadays.

  5. Jongseong Park said,

    July 4, 2023 @ 1:01 am

    It's interesting to see the mention of fonts, i.e. typefaces. A striking part of the visual difference between Korean-language text from the North and the South, at least to those who are attuned, is that they make use of different typefaces.

    Typefaces do not materialize out of thin air, but are consciously designed by people to suit the evolving technological demands. The division of the Korean peninsula predates the introduction of not only digital typography but also phototypesetting, so it's not a surprise that the typefaces used today are so different in the North and South.

    Occasionally in Western-produced videos and such you see attempts at imitating North Korean text. They often fall short not only because they are clearly translated from English, but because they use South Korean spelling and South Korean typefaces.

    Supposedly, the Korean version of Konami's online game Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links uses a North Korean font, probably because of the involvement of someone from Japan's North Korea-aligned ethnic Korean community in the localization. North Korean typefaces developed in complete separation from the South's design trends, so they can appear quaint and unsophisticated to South Koreans. To the extent that they are used in South Korea, they are explicitly intended to give a North Korean feel to the text (of course, there is no corresponding punishment in the South for using North Korean typefaces).

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2023 @ 6:09 am

    @Jongseong Park

    Very good to hear from you.

    I too was struck by the reference to different fonts between North and South Korea, so thank you for your discussion of how that situation came about.

    I went looking for examples that would show the differences in visual appearance of the two different types. It wasn't easy to find websites or publications that would conveniently contrast and compare the two types.

  7. Rodger C said,

    July 4, 2023 @ 9:51 am

    Somewhat related: The Oxford Atlas of the World uses different romanizations for placenames in Norh and South Korea.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2023 @ 5:38 pm

    In the sidebar to the article on the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), Wikipedia states that its ideology is


    Communism is mentioned numerous times in the article. We may pay particular attention to this statement: "Starting from 2021, Kim Jong Un has started reviving communism and communist terminology within the WPK…" More expansively:


    "Officially, the WPK is a communist party guided by Kimilsungism–Kimjongilism, a synthesis of the ideas of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The party is committed to Juche, an ideology attributed to Kim Il Sung which promotes national independence and development through the efforts of the popular masses. Although Juche was originally presented as the Korean interpretation of Marxism–Leninism, the party now presents it as a freestanding philosophy. The WPK recognizes the ruling Kim family as the ultimate source of its political thought. The fourth party conference, held in 2012, amended the party rules to state that Kimilsungism–Kimjongilism was "the only guiding idea of the party". Under Kim Jong Il, who governed as chairman of the National Defence Commission, communism was steadily removed from party and state documents in favor of Songun, or military-first politics. The military, rather than the working class, was established as the base of political power. However, his successor Kim Jong Un reversed this position in 2021, replacing Songun with "people-first politics" as the party's political method and reasserting the party's commitment to communism."

    VHM: N.B. the final clause of the last sentence.


    Cf. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), officially the Communist Party of China (CPC), which is the founding and sole ruling party of the People's Republic of China (PRC). In Chinese, the name is Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng 中国共产党, Because China is deeply into state capitalism, is someone going to claim that it is no longer communist?

    If anyone doubts that China is communist, I adduce two items of evidence:

    1. Pay a visit to the Zhōnggòng Zhōngyāng Dǎngxiào 中共中央党校 ("Central Party School of the Communist Party of China") in Haidian District behind the Peking University faculty housing at Saoziying. Let me tell you, they mean serious business there — Marxism-Leninism and all that, and Xi Jinping served as the president of the school from 2007-2013.

    2. Of Xi Jinping's three main titles — general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), president of the People's Republic of China (PRC) (what we call "president" of the PRC in English is really zhǔxí 主席 ["chairman"] in Chinese) — the first is the most important. Moreover, all dānwèi 单位 ("work units") in China have a Party Secretary (shūjì 书记), and he / she is always more important than his / her non-Party counterpart (e.g., mayor, university president, factory foreman, etc.). In the 80s and 90s when I visited various dānwèi 单位 ("work units") all across China, I invariably noticed that the party secretary had the best office, most magnificent desk, etc. I would ask the people working in those units what he / she did to merit such preferential treatment, and they would reply, "guǎn sīxiǎng 管思想" ("control thoughts").


    For fun:

    "'There is no Communist Party, there is no New China'" (8/4/11)


    My next post will be on the Korean word for "communism".

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2023 @ 6:45 pm

    From Stu Cvrk:

    I think juche is a blend. According to Wikipedia:


    In 1972, Juche replaced Marxism–Leninism in the revised North Korean constitution as the official state ideology, this being a response to the Sino-Soviet split. Juche was nonetheless defined as a creative application of Marxism–Leninism. Kim Il Sung also explained that Juche was not original to North Korea and that in formulating it he only laid stress on a programmatic orientation that is inherent to all Marxist–Leninist states.

    In 2009, all references to communism were removed from the North Korean Constitution. However, in January 2021, the WPK reasserted its commitment to communism.


    To me, juche is communism (or Marxism-Leninism) with North Korean characteristics.

  10. Jongseong Park said,

    July 4, 2023 @ 9:37 pm

    Information online about North Korean typefaces is mostly catered to those who are already familiar with the typefaces used in South Korea, so I haven't seen any in-depth comparison of the styles.

    You can take a look at examples of fonts included in Red Star OS (붉은별 Pulgŭnbyŏl OS), a North Korean Linux distribution, on this page.

    광명 Kwangmyŏng (光明 "light") uses the stroke style of the Ming/Song/Mincho typefaces for Chinese characters to Hangul letterforms. Its closest comparison in South Korea is to the style known as 순명조 Sunmyeongjo.

    붓글 서체 Putkŭl Sŏch'e (–書體 "brush-written script") is probably the most iconic North Korean typeface for outsiders due to its popular use in slogans. It is a lively semi-cursive design. There is no shortage of calligraphic typefaces in South Korea, but by nature such designs are highly distinctive (as are typefaces for the Latin alphabet that imitate brush script) so you're unlikely to find anything from the South that is a close match.

    붓글 궁체 Putkŭl Kungch'e (–宮體 "brush-written palace style") is quite different from South Korean 궁서체 gungseoche or 궁체 gungche despite the name. "Palace style" refers to the elegant Hangul calligraphy style developed by the women of the royal court (called 궁녀 gungnyeo or "palace women"). The South Korean typefaces called gungseoche rarely capture the elegance of the original, but the North Korean version here seems to have strayed even further, modifying the proportions for setting in smaller text so that the glyphs are more squarish. The brush strokes are grossly simplified and do not correspond to what you actually see in the palace style. Putkŭl Sŏch'e is ironically much closer to the original palace style.

    붓글 예서 Putkŭl Yesŏ (–隷書 "brush-written clerical script") is an application of the clerical script of Chinese calligraphy to Hangul letterforms. I was surprised that it wasn't spelled as 례서 ryesŏ, which I expect to be the North Korean spelling of 隸書 lìshū. In South Korea, word-initial 례 rye in Sino-Korean words becomes 예 ye according to 두음 법칙 du-eum beopchik ("initial sound rule"), but this is not normally the case in North Korea except very rarely in nativized vocabulary. I'm not certain that the spelling used on the page is the original spelling in Red Star OS, but the screenshots give the impression that this is the case. In any case, Hangul versions of clerical script have unsurprisingly been tried in South Korea as well, for example 예서 Yeseo by Asiafont, but the North Korean version here has more of a handwritten feel.

    천리마 Ch'ŏllima (千里馬 "thousand-li horse", the mythical flying horse that lent its name to North Korea's mass mobilization movement intended to promote rapid economic development) is a basic sans-serif design, not too dissimilar from older sans-serif typefaces used in South Korea that you can see on signs dating from the 1950s and 60s. The look is quite dated now, but in the last decade or so retro fonts have been popular in South Korea, so you can also see contemporary designs that evoke these proportions. Still, to typographically attuned South Korean eyes, the use of Ch'ŏllima in North Korea does give the impression of a place frozen in the past.

    청봉 Ch'ŏngbong (靑峰 "Green Peak" in Mount Paektu) is a family of basic text typefaces corresponding to the Myeongjo/Batang typefaces in South Korea. There are several different designs that use this name. The sample on the page shows a bold version which is probably not that representative. Noteable differences from the various Myeongjo/Batang designs from South Korea include the treatment of the brush stroke-like terminals (corresponding to serifs of Latin typography) and the penchant for barely curved diagonals.

    The letter does not show up in the page, but North Korean typefaces usually use a variant of ㅌ t' where the ㄴ-shaped stroke doesn't connect with the top stroke, so that it looks like ㅡ and ㄷ stacked together.

    It might be sampling bias, but the impression we get is that there is not a whole lot of diversity in typefaces in North Korea. It's the same basic designs you see everywhere. Meanwhile, there are thousands of typefaces available in South Korea, and new ones are coming out constantly. Large corporations and organizations often have custom typefaces for their visual identity. Even basic text typefaces evolve with the times so that you can often guess around which decade a book was printed based on the typeface that was used. It wouldn't surprise me if typography in North Korea hasn't been as dynamic.

  11. Peter Grubtal said,

    July 5, 2023 @ 3:57 am

    A bit of a tangent but I seem to recall seeing in a museum in Seoul a good few years ago a display which seemed to suggest that movable type had been invented in Korea before Gutenberg. I can't recall any details but presumably it was with hangul script.

  12. Jongseong Park said,

    July 5, 2023 @ 8:48 am

    Moveable type existed for centuries in East Asia before Gutenberg. What he invented was the printing press, not moveable type. The oldest extant book printed with metal moveable type was indeed printed in Korea in 1377, but it was written in Chinese characters as this was before Hangul was invented.

  13. Pete Schult said,

    July 8, 2023 @ 8:54 am

    I'm reminded of the (effective) ban on teaching or using German during WWI in the US & UK.

    Obviously, executing violators of the ban takes its degree to 11, but even that punishment is in line with that meted out to those who said *sibboleth* rather than *shibboleth*.

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