"Communism" in Korean

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As I have demonstrated here, communism is still very much a thing in North Korea, and apparently under the leadership of Kim Jung Un increasingly more so.

Now, the word for "communism" in the Korean of South Korea is gongsanjuui 공산주의 (共産主義), which simply adopts the Chinese gòngchǎn zhǔyì 共産主義. Since that usage goes against the regime's general principle of replacing words from Chinese characters with native morphemes, it caused me to wonder what the word for "communism" must be in the Korean of North Korea, inasmuch as gongsanjuui 공산주의 (共産主義) is a wholly Sino-Korean term.

Most Korean speakers I asked about this stated that they simply didn't know what the word for "communism" is in the Korean of North Korea. Finally, after continuing to ask around, I received the following two answers that settled the question.

Haewon Cho:

I believe that "communism" is translated as "공산주의" (gongsanjuui – Revised Romanization) in both South and North Korea. While North Korea has enforced a language policy that promotes the use of pure Korean (linguistic purism), it has still used Sino-Korean words and loanwords from Russian, as it is nearly impossible to completely eliminate all loanwords from the Korean language. Recently, they have also incorporated more English loanwords, such as "mask" being translated as "마스크" (maseukeu) and "hotel" as "호텔" (hotel) in the North Korean language.

Ross King:

The word for 'communism' is the same in the North as in the South–공산주의. But I don't think it's accurate to say that this "goes against the regime's general principle of replacing words derived from Chinese characters." They only do this when there is an easy, transparent replacement to hand, and the native lexical/etymological stock is already so impoverished after so much intense contact with sinographs after so many centuries that their options for neologism are limited (unlike, say, Turkish~Turkic).

North Korean communism speaks for itself.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Bob Ramsey]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2023 @ 6:26 am

    From a North Korean who escaped from the place about 5-6 years ago:

    Regarding your question about the North Korean term for "communism," in both North Korea and South Korea, the term commonly used is "gongsan juui" (공산주의).

    Unlike the regime's general principle of replacing words derived from Chinese characters, "gongsan juui" has remained the consistent term for communism in both regions.

    In the Korean language, many words have their roots in ancient Chinese, and these Chinese-derived words have been retained in both North and South Korea. There is no other expression of 'gongsan juui' (공산주의) in Korean language. Unlike South Korea, however, the North Korean regime and people rarely use Chinese characters.

    It is important to clarify that when the North Korean regime emphasizes eliminating foreign adopted words, they are primarily referring to English-derived words used in the Korean language. As far as I know, it is impossible to replace Chinese-derived words in Korean language.

  2. Jongseong Park said,

    July 5, 2023 @ 7:46 pm

    There are certainly lots of myths about North Korea's language policy in the South and elsewhere, often because people take the North's stated objectives at face value without accounting for their discrepancies from reality.

    In 1966, 문화어(文化語) Munhwaŏ ("cultured language") was established as the new standard language for North Korea, ostensibly based on the speech of Pyongyang, the "revolutionary capital". This was obviously politically motivated, since Kim Il Sung did not like that Standard Korean was based on the speech of Seoul, the capital of the South.

    In reality, however, Munhwaŏ was largely a continuation of Standard Korean, that is, based on the speech of Seoul rather than of Pyongyang, which is in a different dialect region.

    Some elements of dialects spoken in the North were indeed incorporated into Munhwaŏ, including the acceptance of -했댔다 haettaetta as a colloquial alternative to 했었다 haessŏtta, the pluperfect indicative of 하다 hada that it shares with the Standard Korean of the South (and is still the usual form accepted in Munhwaŏ). Most noticeably, the "initial sound rule" (두음 법칙 du-eum beopchik) that converts word-initial /ɾ/ to /n/ and /ni, nj/ to /i, j/ in native and Sino-Korean vocabulary was abandoned, probably because these sound changes are not complete in many dialects in the North.

    However, Munhwaŏ is still based on the pre-division Standard Korean which was modelled on the speech of Seoul. The Munhwaŏ term for 'mother' is 어머니 ŏmŏni as in the South, not 오마니 omani which is the dialectal form in actual Pyongyang speech.

    However, generations of both South Koreans and North Koreans themselves have been taught that Munhwaŏ was based on the speech of Pyongyang, so this dubious claim is often accepted without question. Add to this the fact that most North Koreans who escape are not from Pyongyang and are not familiar with the actual dialect of Pyongyang – they have no reason to question the official explanation.

    Along with the declaration of Munhwaŏ as the new North Korean standard in 1966, a project was launched called 우리말다듬기 Uri mal tadŭmki ("Refining our language") which continued into the mid-1980s. According to the description in the Encyclopedia of Korean Culture, the aims of this language planning project can be summarized as follows:

    Firstly, replace Sino-Korean words (한자어 漢字語 hanchaŏ) with native Korean words (고유어 固有語 koyuŏ), and if suitable native Korean equivalents do not exist, use explanations instead. Make a distinction between Sino-Korean vocabulary that can continue to be used and those that should be discarded; keep using Sino-Korean vocabulary that is already considered part of our language. Keep Sino-Korean words that do not have identical meanings with native Korean words, but even if a Sino-Korean word is widely used, if there is a way to express it in native Korean, then coin this as a new word.

    Secondly, replace loanwords (외래어 外來語 oeraeŏ) with native Korean words. Correct loanwords to native Korean words as and when they are brought in. It is practically impossible to replace loanwords with native Korean words each time and to generalize this; even in North Korea with its emphasis on its linguistic independence, there is an increase in recent times in the use of loanwords for international vocabulary in fields such as academia, sport, and diplomacy.

    Thirdly, for use in idealogical education, it is forbidden to modify political terms even if they are Sino-Korean.

    Fourthly, continue to use Sino-Korean words and loanwords that are part of scientific and technical terminology as well as those that have been popularized. When it is unavoidable to use loanwords, follow the pronunciation of that country.

    That third point is the reason that North Korea never tried to replace the word 공산주의(共産主義) kongsan chuŭi for communism.

    One point that causes confusion is the fact that North Korea discontinued the use of Chinese characters to write Sino-Korean vocabulary in all Korean text from the very beginning. South Korean textbooks have never used Chinese characters in Korean text either, but the ban wasn't enforced in the rest of society so the change was more gradual as more and more people grew up learning from textbooks that did not feature Chinese characters. Today, virtually all text in Korean is only in Hangul in the South, although the occasional use of Chinese characters as shorthand continues in headlinese and some other uses.

    Some have taken this ban on the use of Chinese characters to write Korean to mean that Chinese characters were banned altogether in North Korea, which isn't true – North Koreans still learn Chinese characters in school.

  3. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 6, 2023 @ 2:04 am

    "simply adopts the Chinese" — adopts the Japanese kyōsanshugi 共產主義on the whole more probable? But dunno the details of this case…

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 6, 2023 @ 12:22 pm

    The Chinese Communist Party was founded on July 23, 1921 in the Shanghai French Concession and the Japanese Communist Party was founded in Tokyo on July 15, 1922. Regardless of which was first, the key point is that they both used Sintic morphemes, and Korea followed suit.

  5. KIRINPUTRA said,

    July 13, 2023 @ 11:00 pm

    You figure 共産主義 would've entered Korean in parallel to its entry into Taioanese & Formosan Hakka. Taioanese KIŌNGSÁN 共産 & KIŌNGSÁN CHÚGĪ 共産主義 must've been borrowed in part from (written) Japanese proper & in part from the Book Chinese 漢文 end of the continuum of the Japanese national language. Earliest attestation of either word that I can find in the romanised record would be 1923, which points to it having been borrowed either around then or up to a decade or so farther back.

    I guess there's a widespread habit of not thinking of such words as Japanese loans, but doing so (or treating this as a question of fact) tightens our understanding of what "Sinitic" even is, and brings us more in line with, say, Austronesian or Dravidian studies.

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