Euro-Americans speaking North Korean with native fluency

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This short video claims that these two men speak perfect Korean with a Pyeongyang accent.


Comments by Koreanists (whom I asked if this sounds right to them):

Haewon Cho:

Yes they are native North Korean speakers. Amazing!


Bob Ramsey:

What the… Oh, my goodness, yes, they do speak what sounds like "perfect" Korean with a Pyongyang accent! That could only be because they were born and grew up in Pyongyang. Wow. And one of them says he would sacrifice his life for Kim Jong Un… Wow, just wow. 
What I wonder about is (1) Just how well do they speak American English? (I notice they didn't try on that clip) and (2) how do they tolerate what must surely be living as "freaks" in a place like North Korea? It's hard for me to imagine the strain it must be to live there, considering the way ordinary, freaked-out North Koreans must surely treat them. Oh, I'm sure they have special privileges and a life of ease, but they couldn't live a normal life among people they could turn to as actual friends of theirs. Whew!


Ross King:


What is problematic about the clip is that it shows how the ROK Revised Government Romanization is giving rise to bogus pronunciations like "chee-all" for what is romanized as "Cheol" = 철.

These two brothers are occasionally featured in videos showing 'foreigners' speaking fluent Korean, but that too is problematic: Korean is their first language, and they did not learn it as a second/foreign language, the 'hard way'.


Jongseong Park:

They certainly sound completely native to me. However, I can't really judge their accents due to my limited exposure to authentic Pyongyang speech. They certainly sound very much like media portrayals of North Korean accents in the South, although I suspect a lot of this is faked by South Korean actors doing stage accents so it's not a good basis for me to judge.
When written down, what they say is indistinguishable from standard Korean as used in the South:
조선 이름을 가지고 싶었습니다.
Chosŏn irŭm-ŭl kajigo sipʼŏssŭmnida.
"(I) wanted to have a Korean name."
우리 민족을 지키기 위한 행위란 말입니다.
Uri minjok-ŭl chikʼigi wihan haengwiran mal-imnida.
"It is an act to protect our (ethnic) nation."

경애하는 김정은 원수님께 충성으로 보답하고
Kyŏngae-hanŭn Kim Chŏngŭn wŏnsunim-kke chʼungsŏng-ŭro podap-hago
"repay the Dear Marshal Kim Jong Un with loyalty" 
최고사령관 동지를 목숨 바쳐서 사수하고
Chʼoego Saryŏnggwan Tongji-rŭl moksum pachʼyŏsŏ sasu-hago
"give our lives to defend Comrade Commander-in-Chief"
I used South Korean standard orthography here, but apart from differences in spacing (in North Korea, they would write 김정은원수님께 and 최고사령관동지를 without spaces, for instance), these would be written identically in the North as far as I'm aware. They are not using any noticeable Northwestern dialect features (to which dialect region Pyongyang belongs) such as the verb endings -습네다 -sŭmneda, -입네다 -imneda for standard -습니다 -sŭmnida, -입니다 -imnida.
So the difference is purely one of accent, mainly in intonation.

To put this in perspective, bear in mind that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Korean-Americans who speak English with native fluency.  Nobody makes the slightest fuss over them.  There are even thousands of Euro-Americans who learned Korean "the hard way" and speak it with near-native fluency.  Mutatis mutandis, the same is true for many other languages.

I used to love to trick Chinese who spoke to me on the phone into thinking that I was actually ethnically Han.  It was even more fun to trick them face to face into believing that I was a Uyghur PRC citizen from Artush / Artux Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture in Eastern Central Asia, except that they were skeptical because they said my Mandarin is better (more biāozhǔn 標準 ["standard"]) than that of a Uyghur.

The joy of learning languages!


Selected readings


  1. Valerie Hansen said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 1:45 pm

    In 2006, Crossing the Line, a film directed by Daniel Gordon and Nicholas Bonner, told the story of two US soldiers (James Dresnok and Charles Robert Jenkins) who defected to North Korea during the Korean War. The father of the two men discussed in this blogpost was James Dresnok. One of the men shown here appears in the film (actually both sons may appear, but I only remember one) and speaks accented English. The film is fascinating for what it shows about North Korea (even if you have to wonder what the filmmakers had to leave out in order to get permission to make and release the film). It's available for rent on Amazon Video.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 2:59 pm

    What does it mean to call these brothers "Euro-American"? Their late father was an American defector, presumably of ultimate European ancestry. Their mother was a Romanian lady who was kidnapped from Italy in a covert North Korean operation to provide a coerced bride for the defector and AFAIK had never been to the U.S. So on their maternal side they are of "Euro-" ancestry, but not "-American" ancestry. They do probably qualify under U.S. law for U.S. citizenship (perhaps also under Romanian law for Romanian citizenship?), but I take it have not availed themselves of any of the associated rights or borne any of the associated obligations.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 7:30 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    Your explanation of "Euro-American" is what, after much thought, I intended it to be.

  4. Joe said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 7:32 pm

    No one bats an eye at Korean Americans speaking their native English, but English has a special place in the world and no one really bats an eye at any color of face speaking flawless English. However, some people who aren't locals may still bat an eye if a person with visible East Asian features speaks flawless English with an accent other than American or British, or speaks flawless French, even though there are growing numbers of native-born Australians and Frenchpersons who trace their ancestry to Asia.

  5. Jenny Chu said,

    July 18, 2023 @ 5:52 am

    There is a long history of non-(visibly) Chinese people growing up in multinational, cosmopolitan Hong Kong, going to local schools, being well-integrated into the local community, etc. There have never been huge numbers but it's not THAT unusual. Nevertheless, a white person in Hong Kong speaking native-level Cantonese still gets double takes, stares, and amazed responses.

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