The Imaginings of Hangul Supremacists: “Hangul Democracy”

4-19 Democracy Movement

Students carrying the banner “Defend democracy to the death!” (民主主義死守하자!) in front Seoul City Hall during the April 19th Revolution that culminated in the resignation of President Rhee Syngman.

On May 2, not too long after the anniversary of the Sewol sinking, an article in the Korean news website OhmyNews seriously asked, “If we said 인양(引揚) instead of 인양, would we know what that means?” (‘인양’을 ‘인양(引揚)’이라 하면 알까). This was in reference to the government’s plans to recover the sunken Sewol. The article’s main target, however, is about the Education Ministry’s discussions to bring back Hanja mixed textbooks. Predictably, the article is so poorly thought out that it is difficult to consider where to begin the rebuttal. Besides the invocation of the Sewol tragedy (which I will assume for the benefit of the doubt to be misguided and not opportunistic), the editorial makes a number of ridiculous contentions, including misleading statistics regarding support of Hanja education (48.5% support is still a lot) and hypocrisy over English education. This post will focus on the article’s imaginings about the link between Hangul and democracy (“한글민주주의”):

거칠지만 민주주의를 계층이나 연령의 차등과 차별을 최소화한 이념 체계로 정의해 보자. 이를 전제로 할 때 한글은 일부 지배층의 언어인 한자나 한문보다 민주주의의 보편성에 상대적으로 더 잘 부합하는 문자 체계라고 볼 수 있지 않을까…

Let us roughly define democracy as the ideology that most minimizes the discrimination and ranking by socioeconomic class or age. Under this premise, can we not consider that compared to Hanja or Hanmun, the language (언어) of the ruling class, Hangul is not the script (문자) that relatively better conforms to the egalitarianism of democracy? …

The article’s primary basis for equivocating Hangul to democracy is that “Hanja was traditionally the ruling class’ script.” The article seems to be blind to Korea’s linguistic policies in the modern era, and has to lackadaisically stretch all the way back to days of the Chosun dynasty to look for a blanket argument. While it may be true that statistically literacy was largely limited to the ruling classes prior to the modern era in Korea, this was the case all over the world before the industrial revolution — even with Hangul, which first spread among the noblewomen. Due to its infatuation with pre-modern Korea, the article misses the fact that Hangul exclusivity is primarily a legacy of autocratic regimes in both North and South Korea.

October 9, 1969 Edition of the Dong-a Ilbo (東亞日報, 동아일보).

An article announcing President Park Chunghee’s plans for Hangul exclusivity in the October 9, 1969 Edition of the Dong-a Ilbo (東亞日報, 동아일보).

Contrary to the article’s imaginings, Hangul exclusivity came at the behest of not-so-democratic strongmen. In North Korea, President Kim Ilsung banned Hanja from official texts beginning in 1948. In South Korea, the military dictatorship of Park Chunghee embarked on a “Five Year Hangul Exclusivity Plan” (한글전용 5개년 계획 안) starting in 1968 and banned Hanja from all public education that year. While both men are remembered for many things (e.g., the latter for vastly improving South Korea’s economy), neither are remembered as being champions of democracy. President Park Chunghee’s original plan was to completely eliminate Hanja by 1972, but because of public backlash had to adjust course. He tweaked his original plans by making Hanja education optional in middle and high schools. Nevertheless, he maintained the ban on use of Hanja outside of Hanja textbooks and the prohibition of Hanja education in elementary school. Moreover, subsequent military dictatorships continued President Park Chunghee’s Hangul exclusivity policy. The result was that large portions of the Korean populace never formally learned Hanja, contributing to its precipitous decline during this time period.

In stark contrast to the underlying presumptions of the article, this anti-Hanja policy changed only after the end of the military dictatorship and transition to democracy. For example, the ban on Hanja education in elementary schools was lifted in 1992 (shortly before I started learning Hanja in an elementary school where it was taught). Not to mention, Nobel Peace Prize winner President Kim Daejung, remembered for his advocacy of democracy, spent some time during his presidency actively attempting to reverse Hangul exclusivity, and introduced incentives for students to study Hanja.

It should be noted that it is not as if other Hangul supremacists are wholly unaware of this dark side of Hangul’s modern history. Indeed, some Hangul supremacists do not even pretend at all that there is such a link between democracy and Hangul. A few years ago, one Hangul exclusivist linguistics professor from Seoul University in fact told his fellow exclusivists, “I very much hated President Park Chunghee because he was a dictator. But I can forgive all of his misdeeds because he imposed Hangul exclusivity,” and urged them to do the same (“나는 박정희 대통령이 독재를 했으므로 아주 싫어했다. 그러나 한글전용을 시행했으므로 그의 모든 것을 용서해 줄 수 있다”). Essentially, they are so fervent about Hangul exclusivity that they would excuse the trampling of democracy and human rights.

Given Hangul exclusivity’s recent history and concession by other Hangul supremacists, the article’s assertion that Hangul is somehow linked to democracy is laughably contemptible. Furthermore, from a democracy aspect, Hangul exclusivity is especially troubling because it is so closely tied to expression. Indeed, Hangul exclusivity has severely limited the degrees of freedom in Korean expression in writing by two orders of magnitude, from 2,000 plus to little over 20. If democracy is seriously to be considered in linguistic policy, this distressing statistic should be taken into account.

  1. Why do uou think Koreans are so against hanja?

    • 歸源 said:

      I will address this in a future post, but in short many of them (not all) view it as a threat to their cultural identity.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this today — it stirs up quite a lot in me and I hope I can put some of it into words:

    Sloganeering is too easy and can be very dangerously effective not only as a means of fanning the flames of culturally specific or ethnocentric phobias, but also as a vehicle for getting people to assimilate and internalize a diminished world view where they come to defend their right to have low expectations of themselves… in essence, what you describe is the seed of a campaign to get people to cultivate and defend ignorance of the potential possibilities available to them as thinking and creative human beings.

    Anytime these kinds of reductive generalizations drawing broad us=good, them=bad analogies become the currency of valuation for the basic repositories of cultures and identity— namely language, art, literature, religion — alarums should blare until people notice the propaganda, and can make considered choices about whether to internalize them and spend their energy on defending the smallness of such propagandist ideals, or whether to disregard such condescending notions and instead invest their energy on learning and exploring the possibilities that lie beyond what they already know.

    • 歸源 said:

      Yes, and that’s one reason why the arguments for Hangul exclusivity are generally not that good — and terrible, as seen here. They have no “other side” to argue with to develop their reasoning.

      • And that is all the more reason why I appreciate and so enjoyed this post — because in it you you draw attention to the fact that even by its very weakness, the “supremacist” argument (which, ostensibly, is just preaching to the choir) should raise questions about its legitimacy, or at the very least, alert people to examine it more closely and not just drink the kool-aid.

        The very expression of concern that this post manifests creates an opportunity (for whomever might encounter it) for reflexion where there might not otherwise exist one.

      • 歸源 said:

        Yes, well there is an opposing side, but one that the Hangul supremacists do not wish to face. One of the points in publishing these posts is to showcase Hangul supremacists’ arguments — and the arguments’ weaknesses. To be fair, some of the pro-Hanja arguments are quite out there. But at least they have had time to develop some semblance of reasoning against the other side.

  3. riroriro said:

    I have only superficial knowledge of Korean history . In the very distant past , Korean kingdoms were attacked many times by Chinese , Mongol , Wei empires ; but afterwards , relations were friendlier : Ming and in modern times Ching came to Korea’s rescue . So can you tell me why some Koreans are so fiercely anti – chinese or anti Hanja ? what are the cultural , political ,…. motivations of Kim il Sung and Park chung Hee for their dogmatic only -Hangul stance ?
    Koreans willingly adopted Hanja and chinese culture , they were not imposed upon them . And you told us , a majority of Korean words are from Chinese origin
    Anybody who studied Han characters understand they’re indispensible and of the utmost importance for the understanding of Chinese or Korean or Japanese or Vietnamese culture

    • 歸源 said:

      I will address this question in more detail in a future post, but in short many Koreans (not all) view it as more of a historical baggage, even if they recognize it as indispensable in understanding Korean culture. (Many of them are still under the belief that Chinese characters magically disappeared from Korea after the invention of Hangul in the 15th century.)

      Case in point, I know of a Korean Protestant who didn’t realize why the word “the Cross” was sip-ja-ga in Korean until a few weeks ago when someone told him of the Chinese characters behind it (十字架). He had been (and I imagine still is) quite dismissive of Hanja.

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