That is the question that a group of pro-Hanja advocates has asked the Korean Constitutional Court. The group known as the Korean Language Policy Normalization Promotion Association (語文政策正常化推進會, 어문정책정상화추진회) sued the Korean government over its decades-long Hangul-Only Policy (–專用, 한글전용). The association argues that the Hangul-Only Policy is unconstitutional, and claims that it has lead to a real decline of Korean language competence among the Korean populace. The Korean government’s position is that Hanja is not “Korean” regardless of its long history in Korea. The Korean Constitutional Court has set a public hearing date of May 12.
As a brief recap of history, Koreans originally did not have their own indigenous script and instead used Chinese characters (Hanja) for written communications as early as the Spring-Autumn Period (春秋時代, 춘추시대, 770-403BC). It would not be until 1443, when King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) promulgated the Korean alphabet, Hangul, that Koreans had a script of their own. The King and his scholars created the script to transcribe not only native Korean sounds, but also pronunciations of Chinese characters. (The script originally included letters and specialized provisions just for the latter.) While some of the elite recoiled at the new alphabet, others found plenty of value. One of the first uses of Hangul were Chinese character dictionaries and translations of Confucian classics often in mixed script.
In its first four centuries of existence, however, Hangul never gained official status. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese characters continued to used. Hangul was only made the “National Script” (國文, 국문) in 1894. Debates regarding the role of Hangul in Korean orthography soon arose. They would continue even under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). During this time period, the first spelling rules for Korean were issued by the colonial General Government. Though never fully banned, using Korean was discouraged especially after 1938 with war mobilization efforts. This lead to a nationalist backlash fueling the perception that Hangul needed to be actively protected. (It should be noted there were a substantial number of Korean independence activists that wrote in Classical Chinese.)
After the liberation, this sentiment manifested in the institution of the Hangul-Only Policy by the South Korean government under President Syngman Rhee (李承晩, 이승만, 1875-1965) in 1948. The Policy specified official documents should be written only in Hangul and Hanja only when necessary. However, this was more of an aspirational statement since it was never actually implemented: official documents were still in mixed script. Furthermore, Hanja education was mandatory from elementary school. It would not be until military dictator and President Park Chung-hee (朴正熙, 박정희, 1917-1979) when the Hangul-Only Policy kicked into high gear in conjunction with other nationalist propaganda. In 1970, President Park removed Hanja from public documents and banned Hanja education from all grades. Due to public outcry, however, he re-instituted Hanja education as an optional elective at the middle school and high school levels in 1972. Hanja still remained absent from all textbooks besides the Hanja elective course. Successive military regimes continued President Park’s language policies. The ban on Hanja education at the elementary school level was only lifted in 1992. Regardless, the effect was that large segments of the Korean population never formally learned Chinese characters and were in fact taught to disregard them as foreign and inferior, leading to a substantial drop in use.
Today, while swept behind the rug of Hangul, Sino-Korean words (i.e., Korean words based on Hanja) account for 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary, with frequency of use ranging as high as 90% in specialized terminology. More than 97% of Koreans have Hanja names, the choice of which is regulated by the Korean Supreme Court. Certain academic fields such as law and history continue to use mixed script. Added to this, learning Hanja and Mandarin has become popular in the past few years. Yet, despite its continued use for over two millennia, under current Korean law (국어기본법), Hanja is just as “foreign” as other scripts that have no comparable history on the peninsula (“한자 또는 다른 외국 글자”).
So, what should be the role of Chinese characters in Korean orthography today? Unfortunately, nativism, sinophobia, and even wild accusations of pro-Japanese collaborationism from a very vociferous segment of the Korean population have controlled the debate. The stripping away of Hanja in Korean writing and education has lead to spectacularly detrimental results. One particular consequence has been the significant reduction in the scope of collective learning available to Koreans.
For one, Koreans have been disconnected from the writings of their past. And it is not just the distant past that is affected. Thanks to the Hangul-Only Policy, there is now a trove of information published as recently as two or so decades ago no longer easily accessible. For example, many older Koreans that wrote their college theses as late as the 1980s cannot go back to read their own writings, because they wrote them in mixed script. (As another comical anecdote, I also know of even a few from my generation (“millennial”) that cannot read their own journal entries from elementary school since they were written in mixed script!) Furthermore, Koreans have been also isolated from their neighbors that continue to use Chinese characters. It was not that long ago that Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese used to be able to read one another’s newspapers to figure out the gist of the articles. Now, it is only the Koreans that cannot. What is even more worrisome about this growing illiteracy is that Korea’s largest trading partners include countries with large Sinophone populations, such as China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
In short, the Korean government’s Hangul-Only Policy has been disastrous and should be reversed. While the Korean Constitutional Court might not be most appropriate forum (and some of the group’s arguments might be far fetched), any attempts at undercutting this policy are welcome.