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.
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.