On Hangul Supremacy and Exclusivity – Hangul Under the Dictators

Park Chunghee and Kim Ilsung

South Korean military dictator and president Park Chung-hee (朴正熙, 박정희, 1917-1979) on the left and North Korean leader Kim Ilsung (金日成, 김일성, 1912-1994) on the right. Both men were instrumental in bringing Hangul exclusivity in South and North Korea respectively.

This is one post in series on Hangul Supremacy and Hangul Exclusivity. Hangul Supremacy (–優秀主義, 한글우수주의) is the widespread belief that Hangul is superior, especially in opposition to Chinese characters. Hangul Exclusivity (–專用, 한글전용) is closely related and refers to writing exclusively in Hangul. The purpose of these posts is to introduce Anglophone readers to the Korean debate over Hangul and Hanja. 

Hangul Under the Dictators

The People’s Republic of China had Simplified Chinese; Vietnam had Quốc Ngữ; both North and South Korea had Hangul Exclusivity. (Japan had a Kanji abolition movement until the 1950s that ultimately failed.) The commonality underlying these orthographic changes is that they are all largely the legacies of the authoritarian regimes in those respective countries. This post will give a brief background and then the histories of the Hangul Exclusivity programs in North and South Korea, focusing more on the latter. 

Historical Background

In 1446, King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) promulgated Hangul. For the next 500 years, however, Hanja (漢字. 한자) remained the dominant writing script in Korea. In the late 19th century, the use of Hangul increased, but Hanja was still dominant as Hangul-Hanja Mixed Script (國漢文混用, 국한문혼용) became the prevalent script. (Contrary to some popular claims, mixed script began well before the Japanese occupation. This will be discussed in later post). Beginning in the early 20th century, there were a number Korean nationalists who advocated for Hangul exclusivity; however, there were plenty of other nationalists who composed in Classical Chinese and mixed script, and advocated for the latter.

Hangul Exclusivity in North Korea

Until 1946, the Communist Party in North Korea used mixed script in its official documents including its official newspaper, The Worker’s Newspaper (勞動新聞, 노동신문). That year, Kim Ilsung, the leader of North Korea, enacted a Hangul exclusivity policy, with the exception of personal names and numerals. Two years later in 1948, he ordered the complete eradication of Hanja in writing and in education, and changed the direction of writing from right-to-left to left-to-right.

Almost a decade later, however, beginning in 1960s, Kim Ilsung changed course on the issue of Hanja education. He noted that even college educated North Koreans had difficulty understanding the Korean language and North Korea’s neighbors, China, Japan, and at that time South Korea, still used Hanja. In 1966, Kim Ilsung instructed that Hanja education should be restored. Four years later in 1970, North Korea implemented a Hanja education plan, mandating that North Korean students from elementary school to high school be taught 2,000 characters and college students be taught an additional 1,000 characters.

Despite the restoration of Hanja education, Hangul exclusivity remains the policy in North Korea. Moreover, it is uncertain whether most North Koreans actually are taught Hanja. This is evinced by the fact that most North Korean refugees do not know how to write their names in Hanja.

Hangul Exclusivity in South Korea

The history of Hangul exclusivity in South Korea can be broken up into three periods. First is between the liberation of Korea to when Park Chung-hee seized power through a military coup d’état. During this period, Hangul initiative efforts were largely ineffective. The second period starts when military dictator and President Park Chung-hee started his Hangul Exclusivity initiative. As a result of the regime’s Hangul Exclusivity Initiative, the rate of Hanja used in Korean writing plummeted. The third and last period is the return of democratically elected government. In this period, there were some successful efforts in bringing back Hanja education to public education.

1948-1967 – Early Attempts at Hangul Exclusivity

The first presidential inauguration ceremony.

The first presidential inauguration ceremony in South Korea.

On August 15, 1945, Korea gained its independence from the Japan. The literacy rate in Korea was fairly low, with estimates ranging between 20-40%. The Hangul Society (–學會, 한글학회), known for standardizing the Korean orthographic rules during the Japanese occupation, put forth one solution. The Society advocated Hangul exclusivity and eradicating Hanja from Korean writing, and along with other groups lobbied the Korean government to enact Hangul exclusivity policies.

On October 9, 1948, South Korea enacted, “The Law Concerning Hangul Exclusivity” (한글전용에 관한 법률). The law stated, “Public documents of the Republic of Korea shall be in Hangul; however, when necessary, mixed script can be used.” No attempt was made to implement this law until January of 1958, when guidelines were promulgated requiring that all public documents should be in Hangul, but if the word is difficult its Hanja should be written in parenthesis after it (한글전용 실천요강). These guidelines, however, were not followed, as many official documents from this time were still written in mixed script.

In addition, throughout this time, it was mandatory for South Korean public schools to teach students 1,000 Hanja characters starting from elementary school. This number increased to 1,300 in the mid 1960s. Academics continued to recommend an increase in the number of characters taught. All school textbooks at this time were in mixed script.

1967-1992 – Park Chung-hee’s Hangul Exclusivity Initiative

Before its most recent renovation, the sign on the Gwanghwamun (光化門, 광화문) was written in Hangul and was emblematic of Park Chunghee's Hangul exclusivity policy.

Before its recent renovation, the sign on the Gwanghwamun (光化門, 광화문) was written in Hangul. This was emblematic of Park Chung-hee’s Hangul exclusivity policy.

On May 16, 1961, Park Chung-hee led a military coup d’état, which ultimately led to the ouster of the democratically elected President Yun Boseon (尹潽善, 윤보선, 1897-1990) on March 22, 1962 and set the stage for a long line of authoritarian military dictatorships for the next 30 years. In 1967, Park Chung-hee turned his attention to the issue of Hangul exclusivity. In a letter dated November 11, 1967, Park Chung-hee wrote to Prime Minister Chung Ilkwon (丁一權, 정일권, 1917-1994):

Roll out a year-by-year “Hangul [exclusivity] initiative” plan, so that we can have complete Hangul exclusivity by the targeted year…

First, our final goal is to have “Hangul total-exclusivity” (완전 전용);

Second, we are going to say that we are going to [gradually] reduce the number of Hanja with our Hangul exclusivity initiative, not as “Hangul immediate-exclusivity” (즉시 전용);

Third, in rolling out this Hangul exclusivity initiative, we do not imply by what legal coercive measures [we are going to take].

Shortly after, he unveiled his “Five Year Hangul Exclusivity Plan” (한글전용 5개년 계획), with the goal of completely eliminating Hanja by 1972 through legislative and executive means. On March 14, 1968, Park Chung-hee instructed the following ministries:

Ministry of Education: Reduce the number of characters taught from 1,300 to 700 by 1969. Afterward, reduce Hanja, and by 1972 totally eliminate Hanja from all textbooks.

Ministry of Public Information: Reduce the number of Hanja used in newspapers and other printed materials from 2,000 characters used today to 1,300 characters by 1969, 700 characters by 1970, and Hangul exclusivity by 1972. Come up with laws to support this policy.

Ministry of Government Administration: Gradually reduce the number of Hanja used in public documents and business cards.

Office of Court Administration: Gradually mark with Hangul the family records, registration, registration entries, and lawsuits.

On October 7, 1968, Park Chung-hee publicly revealed his Hangul exclusivity initiative, appealing nationalist sentiments:

It has been over 520 years since King Sejong promulgated Hangul. To not use Hangul exclusively and be reluctant is an anti-independent, modern way of thinking. It is behavior that drives many of our countrymen, who do not know Hanja, away from our culture.

1. Beginning in January 1, 1970, not only will administrative, legislative, and judiical texts, but also civil affair documents will be Hangul exclusively. In this country, we will not accept documents with Hanja. (Note that many enterprises were state owned at this point).

2. In the Ministry of Education, a Committee on Researching Hangul Exclusivity will be established, and by the first half 1969 it will develop a easy to know orthographic method and diffusion method.

3. We will hasten the improvement of Hangul typewriters, so that even small organizations can use them.

4. We will strongly encourage newspapers and other publishers to use only Hangul.

5. Revising the Law Concerning Hangul Exclusivity passed in 1948, we will use Hangul Exclusivity beginning in January 1, 1970.

6. We will abolish Hanja from all textbooks in all grades.

7. We will hasten the translations of historical texts.

The regime proceeded to implement the Five Year Hangul Exclusivity initiative. For the first time in South Korea, it became illegal to teach Hanja and use mixed script textbooks in public schools in all grades, from elementary school to high school. Propaganda stating that Korea was entering the new “Hangul Age” (한글세대) started proliferating throughout Korean society.

This initiative was not without controversy. A poll by the Joongang Ilbo (中央日報, 중앙일보), one of the largest newspapers, as late as 1970 showed an almost even split with only 54% in support. In addition, many academics, writers, and journalists voiced their opposition to this initiative. Some even went as far as calling the Hangul Exclusivity initiative as unconstitutional, during a time when laws struck down by the Korean Constitutional Court were a rarity.

After public outcry, Park Chung-hee’s regime backtracked with respect to Hanja education. He tried to placate those opposed by stating that he personally finds Hanja important to Korean culture and history. The gravity of his words, however, did not match his actions. In 1972, the government only permitted optional Hanja education in middle schools and high schools. It still maintained the ban on Hanja education in elementary schools and the prohibition on mixed script in textbooks other than Hanja textbooks. While many middle and high schools in Korea did restore Hanja education, there were plenty that did not.

The result was that Koreans who attended school during this time and a large percentage of the subsequent generations were never formally taught Hanja. In the following decades, the percentage of Hanja use in Korean writing plummeted. Successive military regimes maintained Park Chung-hee’s Hangul exclusivity policy, and some even went as far as discouraging the reading of Confucian classics viewing them as subversive anti-authoritarian material.

1992-Present – Efforts to Reintroduce Hanja Education

Letter by Kim Daejung to then military dictator and President Chun Doo-hwan (全斗煥, 전두환, 1931-).

Letter by Kim Daejung to then military dictator and President Chun Doo-hwan (全斗煥, 전두환, 1931-) dated December 13, 1982.

The long line of authoritarian military dictatorships in South Korea finally ended in 1992, when Kim Young-sam (金永三, 김영삼, 1927-) became the first civilian to be elected to office since the 1960s. The debate over Hangul exclusivity could finally occur in a democratic setting. In that very year, the ban on Hanja education in elementary schools was lifted. (Right before this blogger started attending one the few elementary schools that elected to teach Hanja.) With the popularity of English although many schools elected not to reintroduce Hanja education, for the first time in 30 years all public schools in all grades in Korea were allowed to teach Hanja.

Out of all post-authoritarian presidents, President Kim Daejung perhaps did the most to reverse Hangul Exclusivity policies. In 1999, one year after his election, he announced his intentions to reintroduce Hanja in public documents and in education. This was met with great resistance. There were, however, some successes. During his presidency, Hanja in smaller font below Hangul was placed on road, bus stop, and subway signs. In education, Classical Chinese was re-introduced as a one year elective in public high schools in 1999 and Hanja Proficiency Test (漢字能力檢定試驗, 한자능력검정시험) results above a certain ranking were admitted as a publicly recognized qualification (國家公認資格, 국가공인자격) in 2001.

Efforts to reverse Hangul exclusivity did not stop with Kim Daejung’s presidency. In 2005, “The Law Concerning Hangul Exclusivity” was repealed. This move was largely symbolic, as another law contains similar language. In the following years, Korean parents started emphasizing Hanja education to their children and campaigned public schools to reintroduce the subject. Indeed, most students who sit for the Hanja Proficiency Test today are elementary school students. A few Korean schools, including even a few elementary schools, adopted mixed script textbooks. In 2013, for the first time since Park Chung-hee’s Five Year Hangul Exclusivity program, all public elementary schools in Seoul started teaching Hanja.

Conclusion

One of the sheer ironies today regarding Hangul exclusivity is that most Koreans that vociferously are for it are typically liberals, who are usually vehemently anti-Park Chung-hee. In fact, the Hankyoreh (한겨레, “One Race” or “The Great Race”), a liberal newspaper, has a strict no-Hanja policy. One would expect Korean liberals to be against a policy set forth not only by an authoritarian regime but also one that concerns so profoundly with a mode of expression. President Park Chung-hee’s Hangul exclusivity initiative literally decimated the numerical degrees of freedom in Korean writing by two orders of magnitude from over 2,000 characters and letters to just 24 letters (plus punctuation and Arabic numerals). To be an accessory to this loss of expressive freedom at the behest of a military dictator requires a tremendous amount of post hoc explanation.

On the other side, Koreans who boisterously advocate for mixed script are typically conservatives and are usually pro-Park Chung-hee. The irony in this case is that they typically attribute the loss of Hanja in Korean writing to “something that happened in the 1970s” without naming who the culprit was — perhaps out of worry about smearing his legacy. (This is also shown in what sources this blogger had to use to research Hangul exclusivity initiative history.) In the last presidential elections, Korean conservatives have had to take a more nuanced stance, calling into question some of the legacies of Park Chung-hee’s presidency. As a part of this self-reflection, his Hangul exclusivity initiative should be called into question.

Sources:

8 comments
  1. Jeff said:

    Very interesting in which most western sources elided the details.

    • 歸源 said:

      I’m not aware of any Western sources that talk about this. Not many Koreans (in my generation) know about this either. I only found out when one of my relatives talked about going to school when this program was first implemented.

      • I got all these information through news

  2. Great post and very insightful conclusions!

    I get the impression myself (though may be quite wrong) that the reason hanja is being reintroduced and encouraged by parents today is related to the perceived “rise” of modern China, rather than any desire to reconnect with history (though it will still benefit the future of any historically minded children).

    I would be more accepting of hangul exclusivity if only it had an upper case system!

    • 歸源 said:

      That is partly true. There’s also an undercurrent among some parents that the Korean language skills among the young are falling.

  3. 苑小安 said:

    Mixed script improves reading comprehension. The rise of Chinese is just a nice perk. I am learning Korean myself, and while it helps to know Japanese, the Hanja has really helped me learn Korean. I fully support the use of Hanja for all Sino-Korean words, and Hangeul for everything else.

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