One of the many beliefs about North Korea is that the country has “purified” its language of Sinitic elements, or Sino-Korean vocabulary (漢字語, 한자어). This has not only been spread by foreign press but also more troublingly by South Korean linguistic purists, who continue to assert that North Korea is a model for language purification. The facts, however, are not so clear cut. Today in North Korea, Hanja (漢字, 한자) education is mandatory starting from fifth grade and North Korean students are expected to have learned 3,000 characters by the time they graduate from college. (Nevertheless, anecdotes from more recent defectors from North Korea suggest that Hanja education is not uniform.) In contrast, in South Korea, Hanja education has been optional in middle schools and high schools since 1972 and was banned in elementary schools until 1992.
Short History of Hanja Education in North Korea
Until 1948, North Korea used mixed script in its official texts including its party newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun (勞動新聞, 노동신문). That year, Kim Ilsung (金日成, 김일성, 1912-1994) ordered the Workers’ Party to stop using mixed script (國漢文混用, 국한문혼용) and start using Hangul (한글) exclusively. Though Hanja was abolished from official texts, North Korea did have some form of Hanja education since 1953. During this time, elementary and middle school students were supposed to be taught 800 characters and high school students were to be taught additionally 1,200 characters. Even after 1956, when the People’s Republic of China adopted simplified Chinese characters (簡體字, 간체자), North Korean schools continued to teach traditional Chinese characters (正字, 정자) — and still does today. With Hangul exclusivity being the new policy, however, there were indications that Hanja education was often neglected. This is shown in Kim Ilsung’s having second thoughts on his language policies beginning in the 1960s. In 1964, he announced his intention to reintroduce Hanja education, noting that South Korea was still using the script. He also lamented that even college graduates had a difficult time with Korean language because of their lack of Hanja knowledge.
한자문제는 반드시 우리 나라의 통일문제와 관련시켜 생각하여야 합니다. …지금 남조선사람들이 우리 글자와 함께 한자를 계속 쓰고있는 이상 우리가 한자를 완전히 버릴수는 없습니다. 만일 우리가 지금 한자를 완전히 버리게 되면 우리는 남조선에서 나오는 신문도 잡지도 읽을수 없게 될것입니다. 그러니 일정한 기간 우리는 한자를 배워야 하며 그것을 써야 합니다. 물론 그렇다고 하여 우리 신문에 한자를 쓰자는것은 아닙니다. 우리의 모든 출판물은 우리 글로 써야 합니다…대학을 나온 사람들도 조선말을 잘못 쓰는것으로 보아 학교들에서 조선말을 제대로 가르치지 못하는것 같습니다.
(김일성,「조선어를 발전시키기 위한 몇 가지 문제」, 『언어학자들과 하신 담화』 1964년 1월3일)
We must consider the issue of Hanja as related to the issue of reunification of our nation… Since currently South Koreans continue to use Hangul mixed with Hanja, we cannot entirely eliminate Hanja. If we were to entirely eliminate Hanja now, we will no longer be able to read newspapers or magazines coming out of South Korea. Therefore, within an appointed time, we must learn Hanja and be able to write it. Of course, this does not mean that we will use Hanja in our newspapers. In all our publications, we must use our script… Because even college graduates cannot properly use Korean, we are teaching Korean language improperly in schools.
(Kim Ilsung, Some Problems Regarding the Advancement of the Korean Language in Discourse with Linguists, January 3, 1964)
North Korean linguists too lamented that North Korean students were unable to understand many Korean words, due to their lack of Hanja knowledge. They observed that North Korean students had problems with not only homophones but words that sounded similar but not the same. For instance, some North Korean students confused the word Hoedap (回答, 회답) meaning “to return a response” with Haedap (解答, 해답) meaning “to explain an answer.”
In 1966, he turned his attention to Korea’s historical texts, the vast majority of which are in Classical Chinese (漢文, 한문). (Most Korean literati were writing in Classical Chinese even up to the early 20th century, well after the promulgation of Hangul in the 15th century.) Kim Ilsung envisioned having a small set of college students that would be proficient in translating the language, and called for wider Hanja education while maintaining Hangul exclusivity.
옛날책에 대한 번역은 한문지식이 있는 사람을 시켜야 합니다. 앞으로 김대에 고전문학과와 같은것을 따로 내오고 똑똑한 사람들을 몇십명씩 받아서 한문을 가르쳐주며 또 문학도 가르쳐주도록 하는것이 좋겠습니다. 우리는 한자말을 될수록 쓰지 말도록 하면서도 학생들에게 필요한 한자는 대주고 그것을 쓰는 법도 가르쳐야 합니다. 남조선출판물과 지난날의 문헌들에 한자가 적지 않게 있는것만큼 사람들이 그것을 읽을수 있게 하려면 한자를 어느정도 가르쳐주어야 합니다. 우리가 학생들에게 한자를 가르쳐준다고 하여 어떤 형식으로든지 교과서에 한자를 넣어서는 안됩니다. …교과서들에 한자를 넣으면 남조선 모양으로 됩니다.
(김일성「조선어의 민족적특성을 옳게 살려나갈데 대하여」. 『언어학자들과 한 담화』 1966년 5월 14일)
We can only let people who have knowledge of Classical Chinese to translate old texts. In the future, it would be beneficial if we accepted tens of intelligent people who could carry out Classical Chinese studies and the like at Kim University and teach them Classical Chinese and literature. We must persist in not using Sino-Korean words but provide for teaching Hanja and using it. Since South Korean publications and past documents contain many Hanja, if we want to have people who can read it, we must teach Hanja to some degree. Even if we say that we are teaching Hanja to students, we cannot put Hanja in any form in our textbooks… If we use Hanja in our textbooks, we will become like South Korea.
(Kim Ilsung, Regarding the Proper Preservation of the Ethnic Characteristic of the Korean Language in Discourse with Linguists, May 14, 1966)
(It is no coincidence that North Korea completed a Korean translation of the massive Annals of the Chosun Dynasty (朝鮮王朝實錄, 조선왕조실록) in 1980, a whole fourteen years before South Korea. The North’s scholars also translated some other Classical Chinese texts well before their counterparts in the South.)
In 1970, as President Park Chunghee (朴正熙, 박정희, 1917-1979) in the South was implementing his Five Year Hangul Exclusivity Plan, North Korea mandated that all students of fifth grade or higher were to receive Hanja education at least two hours per week and increased the number of characters that were to be used in instruction. Elementary, middle, and high school students were supposed to learn 2,000 characters and college students were supposed to learn an additional 1,000 characters, coming to a total of 3,000 characters. Teachers were supposed to instruct students on how to write Chinese characters, a character’s constituent radicals, and Sino-Korean vocabulary. With this mandate, Kim Ilsung also stressed the importance of Hanja education in the preface of a textbook from this time:
학교에서는 한문을 배워주는것이 아주 중요합니다. 지금 한문기초가 약합니다. 국가에서 국한문독본을 만들어서 기술학교까지 약 2000자정도 배워주어야 하겠습니다. 한문을 잘 배우도록 연구해야 합니다. 그렇다고 하여 너무 많이 배울 필요는 없습니다. 3000자 정도면 충분합니다. 초중에서 기술학교까지 2000자정도, 대학에서 1000자정도, 이렇게 하여 3000자정도 배우도록 하는 것이 좋겠습니다. 그리고 한문습자를 배워주어야 하겠습니다. 이전과 같이 붓이 아니라 만년필로 쓰도록 하는 것이 좋겠습니다.
(편집위원회. 『국한문독본』, 1972년 3월20일 평양: 외국문교육도서출판사 머리말, 1970년 6월)
It is important to teach Hanja in school. Right now, our rudimentary understanding of Hanja is weak. With the government having made this book on Hanja education, we must teach about 2,000 characters [to students] through technical school. We must research ways to better teach Hanja. However, we do not need to teach that many [characters]. Approximately 3,000 characters are enough. It would be suitable to have [students] taught 2,000 characters from elementary and middle school to technical school and 1,000 characters in college for a total of 3,000 characters. Also, we must teach how to write Hanja. It would be better to write with a fountain pen, not a brush as in the past.
(Editing Commission, Hanmun Reader, published March 20, 1972. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Education Textbook Publisher, Preface, June 1970)
After 1994, Kim Jongil (金正日, 김정일, 1941-2011) continued his father’s course. Even as Hanja use was steeply declining in South Korea, he stressed the importance of Hanja education. In a Hanja textbook from his regime, Kim Jongil particularly noted that Korean scientific jargon was in Sino-Korean still. There were some concerted efforts in the 1960s to “purify” scientific jargon particularly in the medical field that were heightened in the 1970s, but these efforts failed and North Korean scientists returned to using Sino-Korean by the late 1980s.
우리는 우리나라 과학과 언어를 더욱 발전시키며 조국의 자주적 통일을 이룩하고 민족문제를 완전히 해결하기 위해서 아직은 한자를 배워야 한다.
In order to further develop our country’s sciences and language, to achieve independent reunification of our fatherland, and to completely resolve our race’s problems, we must still learn Hanja.
This was reiterated in a North Korean Hanja textbook published in 2013 during Kim Jongun’s reign (金正恩, 김정은, 1983?-). (Interestingly, when North Korea announced Kim Jongun would be the next leader, the state’s propaganda machine made an absurd claim that Kim Jongun had composed Classical Chinese poetry by the age of three.) In the textbook, he also exhorted students that Hanja education was necessary to not only improve Korean vocabulary and trade with neighboring countries, but also to bring about “revolution in South Korea.”
In spite of this pompous language over Hanja education, there are anecdotes that indicate that many North Korean students, like their peers to the South, do not take the subject seriously. This is for a number of reasons. Hanja education is only allotted one or two hours per week. Even so, North Korean students are never tested or even graded on their Hanja knowledge. They also have even fewer opportunities than students in the South to use Hanja, because all North Korean publications are exclusively in Hangul. (Even today, there are some fields that still regularly use mixed script in the South.) Moreover, North Korean Hanja education still does not seem to be uniform. Most of the more recent North Korean refugees, who are often from the lower classes, have never been exposed to the script. There is one rather hilarious story about a North Korean defector from a few years ago that when he first saw Shinramyeon (辛라면), the most popular brand of ramen in the South, he thought it was seriously read “puramyeon” (푸라면), having confused 辛 for 푸. In contrast, another anecdote from the late 1980s states that a high-ranking North Korean defector’s young son impressed his new South Korean elementary school classmates with his what-should-otherwise-be-rudimentary Hanja knowledge by writing his name in Hanja, 光戶(광호).
Regardless, the fact remains that North Korea still has some form of Hanja education that is occasionally emphasized by the country’s leaders. This is contradictory to the portrayal of North Korea as the epitome of Korean linguistic purism by South Korean linguistic purists, who are often against Hanja education of any kind — while hypocritically not even lifting a finger regarding English education. Moreover, the North Korean dialect still uses many Sino-Korean words for which South Koreans would use “pure” Korean words. For instance, for the word “pocket,” instead of the “pure” Korean word Jumeoni (주머니) as used in South Korea, North Koreans use the Sino-Korean word Paenang (佩囊, 패낭). What is even more ironic is that despite North Korea’s association with extreme anti-Japanese sentiment, all the words in the country’s official name except one are of Japanese coinage: Minjujueui (民主主義, 민주주의) (Democratic), Inmin (人民, 인민) (People’s), Gonghwaguk (共和國, 공화국) (Republic). In addition, the Korean words for “Communism” and “Socialism,” which are Gongsanjueui (共産主義, 공산주의) and Sahoejueui (社會主義, 사회주의) respectively, are also of Japanese coinage. With some knowledge of Hanja at least among the educated elite, it is no surprise that the country is still even coining its own Sino-Korean words, such as Seon’gun Jeongchi (先軍政治, 선군정치), which refers to its “military first policy.”
(Below, Pages from North Korea’s Hanja Textbook Published in 2013)
Pages from North Korea’s Hanja Textbook Published in 2013 (Source)