On Hangul Supremacy & Exclusivity – Korea’s High Functional Illiteracy

World Literacy Rates

Literacy rates of countries around the world. Note that many countries have literacy rates in the same range as Korea’s.

This is part of a series of posts 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 this series is to introduce Anglophone readers to the Korean debate over Hangul and Hanja. 

Hangul and Literacy Rates

Claim: Thanks to its simplicity, Hangul has virtually eliminated illiteracy in Korea. Today, according to the CIA Factbook, South Korea has a literacy rate of 97.9%. (North Korea, like its election results, reports a 99% literacy rate).

Rebuttal: First, there is little correlation between Hangul itself and literacy rates. Second, South Korea has one of the highest rates of functional illiteracy among developed countries.

Lack of Correlation Between Hangul and Literacy Rate

There is little correlation between the simplicity of Hangul and high literacy rates. The primary correlation with literacy rates is the availability of education. As seen in the map above, it is developing countries that have lower literacy rates. This is further supported by the fact that in the first 500 years of Hangul’s existence Korea’s literacy rate was not significantly higher than other pre-industrialized states and even its neighbors.

Countries with writing systems with similar complexity as Hangul have similar or higher literacy rates than Korea. Hangul only has 24 letters. The English alphabet has at least 52 letters (upper case and lower case); Russian Cyrillic alphabet has 66 letters (again, upper case and lower case). Even though these writing systems are slightly more complex, many of the countries that use them have similar or higher literacy rates as Korea.

How about Korea’s immediate neighbors, who use a writing system often detested as overly cumbersome by Hangul supremacists and exclusivists? Japan uses at least 2,228 symbols (2,136 common use Kanji, plus 96 syllabic letters from Hiragana and Katakana); Taiwan and China both use Mandarin and use a lot more Chinese characters than Japan. Surprisingly, even with writing systems with two orders of magnitude higher complexity than Hangul, Japan and Taiwan both have literacy rates slightly higher than Korea. According to the CIA World Factbook, Japan has a rate of 99% and Taiwan has a rate of 98%. Also, China is not that much far behind; it has a literacy rate of 95%, an impressive rate considering how large China is and that at least 10% of the population is not Han Chinese.

Korea’s High Functional Illiteracy Rates

With most developed countries’ literacy rates approaching 99%, a more interesting measure of literacy is functional illiteracy. Functional illiteracy concerns with reading skills above the basic level necessary to manage daily life and employment. It is different from pure illiteracy, the measure discussed above, which is the inability to read at all. The two are not unrelated: if one is purely illiterate, then he is also functionally illiterate. It should be noted that one criticism of functional illiteracy is that the measure is not uniform.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has been measuring functional illiteracy among member states, which comprises of most developed countries including South Korea. In a 2005 study, South Korean adults had the highest rate of functional illiteracy out of 22 OECD member states surveyed with a rate of 38%, much higher than the average of 22%. Almost three in four Korean adults had difficulty reading information necessary for their occupation or skill.

Some Korean education experts, including those in favor of Hangul-Hanja mixed script, have attributed the high rate of functional illiteracy to the lack of Hanja education in Korean public education system. This is not a far-fetched claim, as 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary is derived from Hanja, many of which appear more often in technical fields. Another Korean poll reports that 58% of college-aged Koreans, most of whom have never been taught Hanja, have felt inconvenienced by their lack of knowledge of Hanja at some point in their lives.

  1. I think this is a strong argument. Obviously simpler writing systems should lead to higher literacy rates, or at least quicker obtainable literacy, but Korean is so heavily influenced by Sinic vocabulary (which have lost their tones that would otherwise aid distinction) it cannot function in technical fields without at least passive knowledge of hanja, or recourse to English loanwords (which then requires knowledge of English!)

  2. JW said:

    Japan is not a good case for hanja use. Let’s take that 99% figure for granted (as we can probably trust the CIA World Factbook, the author of the article I cite below probably didn’t have access to that source when the article was written). Still, as is explained in an article by Hirofumi Nagamura, there are a large number of people in Japan who can not deal with Hanja and require them to be spelled out phonetically. Unlike the author of that article, I suppose can believe that the technical definition of literacy in Japan actually includes 2,000 or so hanja – students cram it all in and pass the test and graduate, then forget it all later. But one can still get away with being literate in only the phonetic scripts of Japanese. The implication is that Japan may have the same issue with functional illiteracy that Korea has.

    (Though North Korea seems worst off – the language was purged of many Sino-Korean words, which were replaced by (in order of preference) ancient Korean words that died out and were no longer used, slang words from regional Korean dialects, or made-up words coined from descriptive Korean phrases.)

    China is also a bad example, but for different reasons. There’s literally a double standard – 2000 characters for urban dwellers versus 1500 for rural villagers.

    Also, the reported statistics from China are questionable. Some people counted as literate are actually unable to read and write – they are literate as long as they show proof of graduating primary school, as noted in a Washington Post article by Maureen Fan.

    I’m also surprised that you left out Hong Kong (as a SAR, it’s treated as an independent region and its statistics are calculated separate and are not included into the mainland figures). Hong Kong not only has a high literacy rate through the use of hanja (as Taiwan does) but IIRC also historically had a high literacy rate for Classical Chinese among the entire Chinese population. (As opposed to only the elite noble class elsewhere.)

    • 歸源 said:

      Although I didn’t know of Hirofumi Nagamura’s studies, I am aware that there’s a certain segment of the Japanese population that doesn’t know Kanji well. Most of the Korean literature regarding Hanja education I’ve read have looked up to Japan’s successes in teaching Kanji. That would seem to insinuate that the functional illiteracy rates might be lower than Korea’s.

      As for North Korea, they haven’t completely wiped out Sino-Korean words.

      I didn’t know the PRC had that low of a standard of what is considered “literacy.” Also, as for Hong Kong, when I was looking at the World Factbook stats, it had a lower literacy rate than PRC. That should have hinted that the statistics concerning the PRC are a bit off, but I did not think of that until now.

  3. Anony said:


    This is interesting data, thank you.

    Instead of teaching the Chinese characters, do you think that it would instead be more practical to replace some of the more technical and obscure Sinitic origin words with native words and English loanwords? It seems that it would be better in the long run, since it would be able to phase out the need to learn the characters.

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