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The Korean Constitutional Court ruled 6-3 that the limits on Chinese characters permitted in personal names (人名用漢字, 인명용 한자) are constitutional. These restrictions were first introduced in 1990, as family records maintained by the government were being digitized. The original list only included 2,731 characters. Over the years, the Court has gradually increased the number of permissible characters to 8,142 characters as of last year. Korean Family Law specifies that only Hangul and “commonly used” Chinese characters are permitted in personal names and that the Constitutional Court is to define which characters are allowable.

The restrictions on Chinese characters allowed in personal names was very controversial when first introduced and has been challenged a number of times ever since. In the most recent case, the challenger attempted to use the character 嫪(로) (“to long for”) to name their child. Since the character was outside the list of permitted characters, they were only allowed to record the name in Hangul. The family sued and argued that the restrictions on characters are unconstitutional, because they are a restraint on the freedom to name one’s child and their right to pursuit of happiness.

The majority of the Court, however, disagreed and concluded that the restrictions are constitutional. They noted that the number of people who do not know Chinese characters has increased, and that using rare characters will lead to errors in keeping digital records and recognizing people’s names, causing inconvenience for people with complicated names. The majority added that restrictions on Chinese characters permitted in personal names are “unavoidable” due to technological constraints. The minority countered, pointing out that any such constraints in digitizing records that might have been true in 1990 are no longer existent.

Currently, if any part of a name is not one of the Chinese characters on the list, then it is considered a “pure Hangul” name. Korean identification cards in such instances will only give the Hangul transcriptions, not Hanja and Hangul mixed. As such, although the percentage of Koreans with “pure Hangul” names has been reportedly increasing, this figure might be inflated. A subset of such names are intended to be combinations of “pure Korean” and Chinese characters. Earlier this year, a couple tried registering their daughter’s name as “贇별(윤별).” Even though 贇 is on the list of permissible characters, the couple was forced to register only in Hangul, because it was a mix of Hangul and Hanja. Another subset are cases like the one above, in which at least one character in the name is not on the list of permitted characters. The vast majority of Korean names are still entirely in Hanja.

(On a related note, I would like to also point out that “pure Korean” names in use now, while sometimes haughtily presented as “traditional,” are not anything like actual, historically used “pure Korean” names.)

Sources:

(Source)

Hangul nationalists protesting at the Korean Constitutional Court, which held a public hearing on the Korean government’s “Hangul-Only” Policy dating back to the military dictatorship period. (Source)

Introduction

One rhetoric that is often employed by Korean Hangul supremacists against Hanja is that Chinese characters are somehow a Japanese legacy. Just to give to examples, the statistic that Sino-Korean words account for 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary is routinely denounced as a Japanese fabrication implanted by the Japanese colonial administration and Hanja-Hangul mixed script is often condemned as a Japanese creation imposed upon the Korean populace — presumably because of its similarity to modern Japanese orthography. While both are demonstrably false, this type of rhetoric is so common that one could easily come away with the impression that Hanja is a Japanese creation from reading their materials.

More distressingly, these baseless assertions can be found from people of relatively respectable positions in Korean society. One notable example is the head of the Hangul Society (한글학회), one of the most influential and well-established Korean language associations, who shares similar sentiments:

한자병기는 일제가 심어 놓은 민족의식 말살 교육정책의 찌꺼기. 지금 일본이 큰소리치는 것은 한국을 너무 잘 알기 때문이다. 일본이 가르친 대로의 친일의 뿌리가 득세하고 있기 때문이다. 한글 관련 사업을 좀 해보려고 하면 친일세력들이 들어와서 판을 흐트려 놓는다…

Hanja-Hangul mixed script is a leftover of the educational policy planted by the Japanese to obliterate our racial identity. Right now, the Japanese shout so loudly because they know Korea very well. It is because the pro-Japanese collaborators who have done as the Japanese have taught them have gained power. If you intend to work on Hangul-related manners, these powerful pro-Japanese collaborators will shake you down…

Remember, this is not some random troll in a dark corner of the Internet. This is the head of a major Korean language association spewing conspiratorial rantings. And he is not an isolated case. Hangul supremacists can be found at protests screaming at the top of their longs accusing those who want to expand Hanja education as being pro-Japanese collaborators. Professors from top universities give interviews on television shows stating the same, minus the hyperventilation.

Ironically, Hangul supremacists will not condemn actual collaborators that they perceive contributed to the advancement of Hangul. No, they brazenly genuflect in front of them. For instance, they praise Yi Gwangsu (李光洙, 이광수, 1892-1950) for being the “Father of Modern Korean Literature” and one of the earliest proponents of the “pure Korean script.” Hangul supremacists happily overlook the fact that he was a zealous supporter of Japanese policies for assimilating Koreans. Even hyper-nationalist North Korea does not mind his collaborations with the Japanese colonial government, and has enshrined him at a cemetery in Pyongyang with other Korean independence activists.

This dissonance partly has to do with their view that Hangul is an embodiment of “pure” Korean-ness, under which the fact that the Japanese would have had any hand in the script is unfathomable. Any efforts to aid Hangul is deified and any attempts at expanding Hanja is unforgivable perfidy.

A Brief History of the Development of Korean Spelling Rules

But Hangul too has been heavily influenced by Japanese colonial rule. To get of sense of the degree of influence, today’s Korean spelling rules are almost identical from the ones promulgated by the Japanese colonial General Government. (While this fact might be lost on many Hangul supremacists, most Korean sources on this subject do not deny this.) A look at how Korean spelling developed from its inception through the early modern period will make this point evident.

Dongguk Jeongun

A Chinese character dictionary arranged by tone and rime, the Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country (東國正韻, 동국정운) was one of the very first works published in the Korean alphabet. The still-in-use ㅉ and now-obsolete ㆆ (glottal stop) were originally intended for transcribing Korean and Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters. (Source)

Korean Spelling from King Sejong to the Late 19th Century

In 1446, King Sejong introduced Hangul with the publication of Proper Sounds to Instruct the People (訓民正音, 훈민정음). This work laid out twenty-eight letters. In order, they were:

  • Consonants (17): ㄱ (g), ㅋ (k), ㆁ (ng), ㄷ (d), ㅌ (t), ㄴ (n), ㅂ (b), ㅍ (p), ㅁ (m), ㅈ (j), ㅊ (ch), ㅅ (s), ㆆ (ʔ, glottal stop), ㅎ (h), ㅇ (null), ㄹ (r/l), and ㅿ (z).
  • Vowels (11): ㆍ (aw), ㅡ (eu), ㅣ(i), ㅗ (o), ㅏ (a), ㅜ (u), ㅓ (eo), ㅛ (yo), ㅑ (ya), ㅠ (yu), and ㅕ (yeo)

The work also explicated how each letter is to be pronounced and how the letters are to be combined to form syllable blocks. It even specified provisions for sounds that did not exist in native Korean, but Sino-Korean and vernacular Chinese (e.g., ㅱ for “w”). The Proper Sounds, however, did not give any detailed spelling rules. Its examples assumed that Korean would be spelled phonemically using the new alphabet (i.e., how they sounded). The only concrete spelling rule it proscribed was the Eight Terminal Consonants Rule (八終聲可足用, 팔종성가족용). Under this rule, only ㄱ, ㆁ, ㄷ, ㄴ, ㅂ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㄹ were to be used in the terminal position of a syllable (받침).

After the Proper Sounds, the next seminal work on Korean spelling the Collection of Chinese Characters to Teach the Ignorant (訓蒙字會, 훈몽자회) published in 1527 by Choe Sejin (崔世珍, 최세진, 1468-1542). The Collection of Characters systematically listed some 3,360 Chinese characters by their Korean pronunciations and meanings. Although published eighty-one years later, the work laid out different spelling rules than those of the Proper Sounds. For example, the letter ㆆ had dropped out, the distinction between ㅇ and ㆁ was lost, and some of the specific provisions for Sino-Korean and vernacular Chinese sounds were absent. It also added new rules and provisions to Korean, such as listing the alphabet in a different order with names:

  • Voiceless Consonants: ㄱ(其役, 기역), ㄴ(尼隱, 니은),ㄷ(池末, 디귿), ㄹ(利乙, 리을), ㅁ(眉音, 미음), ㅂ(非邑, 비읍), ㅅ(時衣, 시옷), and ㆁ(異凝, 이응)
  • Voiced Consonants: ㅋ(箕, 키), ㅌ(治, 티), ㅍ(皮, 피), ㅈ(之, 지), ㅊ(齒, 치), ㅿ(而, ㅿㅣ), ㅇ(伊, 이), and ㅎ(屎, 히)
  • Vowels:  ㅏ(阿, 아), ㅑ(也, 야), ㅓ(於, 어), ㅕ(余, 여), ㅗ(吾, 오), ㅛ(要, 요), ㅜ(牛, 우), ㅠ(由, 유), ㅡ(應, 응),ㅣ(伊, 이), and · (思, ㅅ·)

The Collection of Characters, however, maintained some of the rules as laid out in the Proper Sounds. It kept the Eight Terminal Consonants Rule and still assumed that Korean was to be spelled phonemically.

In the subsequent three centuries, Korean spelling rules only saw incremental changes, largely aligning with changes in how Korean was spoken. Some of the changes included:

  • Disuse of the letter ㅿ and ㆁ
  • Adding of ㅺ, ㅼ, ㅽ, ㅾ, and ㅄ for tense sounds (된소리), which probably did not exist in 15th century Korean (while ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ did exist, they did not originally denote those sounds)
  • Disuse of  ㄷ as a terminal sound (solely using ㅅ) by a substantial number of Korean writers

One characteristic that did not change was that Korean throughout this period was still spelled phonemically, although there were discrepancies between the spelling and pronunciation.

Ahakpyeon

Published in 1908, the Book for Teaching Children (兒學編, 아학편) listed definitions of Chinese characters in Korean, Japanese, and English and also pronunciations of the Japanese, Mandarin, and English words in Hangul. Note the use of “ᅋ” (f) to spell “father,” “female,” and “wife.” Koreans today often make fun of themselves not being able to spell (or pronounce) English “f” and “v” sounds. Many might be shocked to find out that their great-grandparents’ Hangul allowed for spelling such sounds. (Source)

1894, Hangul Finally Becomes the National Script of Korea

Phonemic spelling of Korean, however, did not eliminate ambiguity. The same word could be spelled many different ways. There are actually accounts that Hangul-only texts were more difficult to read than mixed script texts. For example, the word 덮으면 (“if one covers”) in modern spelling could be spelled at least three ways under the conventional spelling of this time: 더프면, 덥흐면, 덥프면. How a Korean word was spelled was up to the whims of the individual printer  for that particular day or hour.

With Hangul becoming the “National Script” (國字, 국자) of Korea in 1894, the necessity of a clear, set spelling rules became soon apparent. This need was compounded by the fact that there were several, different attempts at formulating such rules by private individuals. One notable individual was a doctor named Ji Seokyeong (池錫永, 지석영, 1855-1935) who submitted his own rules to the court. His proposals (新訂國文, 신정국문) included:

  • Spelling of tense consonants with ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ
  • Adding ᅄ and ᅋ to denote “v” and “f” sounds
  • Replacing arae a (·) (아래 아) with =

The controversy grew. Some wanted Korean to be spelled morphophonemically (somewhat phonetic spelling reflective of the underlying etymological root). Others wanted Korean to be spelled like the European languages in a string. The only notable development that was widely adopted and stuck around was word spacing.

In 1907, the Korean government (now a protectorate of Japan) responded by establishing the National Script Research Committee (國文硏究所, 국문연구소) to examine this problem. Its members, some of whom were pro-Japanese collaborators, met several times to discuss standardization of Korean spelling. In 1909, they laid out their plans in the National Script Research Committee’s Proposals (國文硏究議定案, 국문연구의정안). At the time, these were considered radical:

  • Maintenance of the formation of letters into syllable blocks
  • Not restoring the use of obsolete consonants (ㆁ, ㆆ,  ㅿ,  ◇ , ㅱ, ㅸ, ㆄ, and ㅹ )
  • Adoption of spelling of tense consonant as ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ , ㅆ,  and ㅉ
  • Maintenance of the letter ㆍ
  • Adding a dot to the side of a syllable to indicate vowel length
  • Allowing the use of ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅎ as terminal consonants
  • Adoption of the names for the consonant letters as 이응, 기윽, 니은, 디읃, 리을,  미음, 비읍, 시읏,  지읒, 히읗, 키읔, 티읕, 피읖, 치읓
  • Adoption of the order of consonants as ㆁ, ㄱ,  ㄴ,  ㄷ,  ㄹ,  ㅁ , ㅂ,  ㅅ,  ㅈ,  ㅎ,  ㅋ,  ㅌ,  ㅍ,  ㅊ
  • Adoption of the order of vowels as ㅏ,  ㅑ,  ㅓ,  ㅕ , ㅗ , ㅛ , ㅜ,  ㅠ,  ㅡ , ㅣ,  ㆍ

These spelling rules never officially adopted. Within months of the release of the 1909 Proposals, Korea was annexed by Japan. The debate over Korean orthography would, however, continue. Read More

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.

Hanja Private Education Deliria

A May 6, 2015 op-ed warns readers of greedy private Hanja educators, highlighting one particular Hagwon that charges 10,000 won (less than $10 USD) for one year of lessons. The author of the op-ed is not being sarcastic, and his arguments are sadly quite typical of other anti-Hanja proponents. (Source)

One of the primary arguments against Hanja education asserted by Hangul supremacists is that it will increase onus of studying upon students and will further exacerbate private education commonly known as Hagwons (學院, 학원). As someone who attended many Hagwons while growing up in Korea, I do find this argument worthy of consideration. Upon closer examination, however, there are many signs that such arguments are less than sincere. Take for example an op-ed from the Korean news site OhmyNews from May 6 titled, “The Largest Pro-Hanja Education Association Holds Hands with Private Education” (‘한자병기 주도 최대 조직, 사교육업체와 손잡아), which is emblematic of this type of argument.

Its author warns readers of the supposed danger that money-grubbing (“돈벌이” and “장삿속”) Hanja Hagwons poses upon Korean students. The article begins with an advertisement from one of the largest publishers of Hanja books promoting Hanja lessons for elementary school students. (For the sake of full disclosure, I do have a few books of theirs intended for older audiences on my bookshelf.) The author describes that the lessons cover Chinese classics such as Elementary Learning in Four Characters (四字小學, 사자소학) and Analects of Confucius (論語, 논어) as well as elementary school level Chinese characters. The cost for all of this? The author will lead you to believe that this is a whopping 150,000 won (about $130 USD) for one year. But staring readers right in their face is the article’s introductory image showing the price as 10,000 won. That is less than $10 USD. 

If Hangul supremacists were actually genuinely worried about avaricious Hagwons, they would be up in arms over English private education. It is well documented that English private education is a multi-billion dollar industry in Korea. Some of its owners and teachers are millionaires. The average cost of an English Hagwon is over 1,000,000 Won (almost $1,000 USD) per month, 100 times more than that of the advertised Hanja Hagwon highlighted by this op-ed charges per year. There are even ones that go for many more that target even younger ages. Not to mention, for the price, the quality of its teachers do not seem to be that great.

Yet there is only silence over English Hagwons from these Hangul supremacists. In fact, one earlier op-ed from OhmyNews states that it is not worried over English education while attacking Hanja education. In doing so, they seek to vilify old, retired grandpas and grandmas who make up a great proportion of Hanja teachers and many of whom who teach for free — or almost free in the case of the highlighted Hagwon.

Hagwons and the education system in general pose serious challenges for Korea. To exploit them as a bludgeon so lightheartedly against Hanja education as Hangul supremacists do is not only absurd and reckless, but also shows their lack of actual concern over this issue and further underlines their intellectual bankruptcy.

 

Every year, countries in the Sinosphere (漢字文化圈, 한자문화권) that still regularly use Chinese characters (漢字, 한자) pick a Chinese character that represent the theme of the year. In China, the character 法(법) meaning “law” was picked to reflect the Chinese Communist Party’s initiatives to reign in corrupt officials. In Taiwan, the character 黑(흑) meaning “black” was selected to represent the scandals within the food industry where some restaurants used gutter oil as cooking oil. In Singapore, the character 亂(란) meaning “chaos” was chosen in response to many conflicts across the globe. In Japan, the character 稅(세) meaning “taxes” was tabbed to signify the Abe government’s move to raise the consumption tax rate from 5% to 8%.

Korea does not have a “character of the year” as the other countries listed. Instead, the Korean Professors’ Newspaper (敎授新聞, 교수신문) picks a four character idiom (四字成語, 사자성어) for the year. This year, out of 724 professors polled, 201 of them (27.8%) voted for the idiom 指鹿爲馬(지록위마) meaning “To call a deer a horse” (or more literally “To point at a deer and deem it a horse”). It refers to turning falsehoods into truths, and vice-versa, to deceive others, especially those in power. The idiom is a reflection of the many tragedies that occurred this year. It was chosen also to criticize how President Park Geunhye (朴槿惠, 박근혜, 1952-) and government officials mismanaged in reacting to these events. The idiom is in reference to an incident towards the end of the Qin dynasty (秦, 진, 9th century-221 BC) as recorded in the Annals of the Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇本紀, 진시황본기) of the Records of the Grand Historian (史記, 사기), which was written by Sima Qian (司馬遷, 사마천, 145 or 135-86BC):

八月己亥, 趙高欲爲亂, 恐群臣不聽, 乃先設驗, 持鹿獻於二世, 曰: “馬也.”
팔월기해, 조고욕위란, 공군신불청, 내선설험, 지록헌어이세, 왈: “마야.”

On the Jihai day (己亥, 기해) of the eighth month, Zhao Gao (趙高, 조고, ?-207BC) wanted to start a revolt, but feared that his ministers would not listen. Therefore, he first tried to test them, and took a deer as an offering to the Qin dynasty’s second generation emperor saying, “This is a horse.”

  • Zhao Gao (趙高, 조고, ?-207BC) – A corrupt and greedy prime minister and eunuch (宦官, 환관) in the Qin dynasty royal court, he played a pivotal role in bringing down the Qin dynasty and is vilified in Chinese history for his treachery.

二世笑曰: 丞相誤邪? 謂鹿爲馬.
이세소왈: 승상오아? 위록위마.

The second generation emperor laughed saying, “Prime minister, are you mistaken? You called a deer a horse.”

問左右, 左右或默, 或言馬以阿順趙高.
문좌우, 좌우혹묵, 혹언마이아순조고.

The emperor asked ministers on his left and right. Out of the ministers, some were quiet. Others stated that it was a horse in order to flatter and follow Zhao Gao.

或言鹿, 高因陰中諸言鹿者以法.
혹언록, 고인음중제언록자이법.

Some said it was a deer. Zhao Gao thus in secret had all those who said it was a deer ensnared.

後群臣皆畏高.
후군신개외고.

Thereafter, all the ministers feared Zhao Gao.

As for the other choices in the poll, the idiom 削足適履(삭족적리) meaning “To cut off the feet and match to shoes” came second, 至痛在心(지통재심) meaning “Extreme pain exists in the heart” came third, 慘不忍睹(참불인도) meaning “So horrendous that no one can bare to watch” came fourth, and 四分五裂(사분오열) meaning “To divide into four and cut into five” came fifth. Last year’s choice was 倒行逆施(도행역시) meaning “To act contrary to reason,” another idiom based on the Records of the Grand Historian. 

Sources:

North Korean Hanmun Textbook

North Korean Hanja textbook for middle school students (Source)

Introduction

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.)

North Korean Hanmun Textbook 1969

North Korean Hanja textbook from 1969 (Source)

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)

North Korean Hanmun Textbook 3

Recent North Korean Hanja textbook from 2013 (Source)

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).

Conclusion

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.”

Sources:

(Below, Pages from North Korea’s Hanja Textbook Published in 2013)

Read More

F-15K

(Source – South Korean Air Force)

Although Korean writing today is almost entirely Hangul exclusive (–專用, 한글전용), examples of Hanja (漢字, 한자) and Classical Chinese (漢文, 한문) occasionally still pop up in popular press. Above is a photo that has been spreading of a F-15K “Slam Eagle” fighter jet taken after a joint US-Korea exercise on November 19. The fighter jet is decorated with the phrase, “枕戈待敵 刻骨延坪(침과대적 각골연평).” It translates to “Lying with a spear and waiting for the enemy, never forget Yeongpyeong Island!” (Or literally, “carve on the bone, ‘Yeongpyeong.'”) The phrase was composed by Choi Chagyu (崔且圭, 최차규, 1956-), the current Air Force Chief of Staff. It is in reference to the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island, an island off the western coast of the peninsula, that occurred four years ago on November 23, 2010. The shelling resulted in the four deaths and twenty-one casualties, some of whom were civilians. The first four characters are taken out of Book of the Southern Qi Dynasty (南齊書, 남제서).

A few of the comments on Korean social media complained that non-Koreans will confuse the airplane for that of the Chinese Air Force or that Hangul should have been used. Fortunately, others have rebutted that the Chinese Air Force would have used simplified, that Hanja is just as part of Korean culture, or that it would take a lot longer to write the same meaning in Hangul. Regarding the first assertion, I would like to add that most non-East Asians will confuse the Yin-Yang (陰陽, 음양), which appears prominently on the Korean flag and is in the roundel of the Korean Air Force along with the tetragram for heaven ☰ (乾, 건) as seen in the photo, for a Chinese-only symbol anyway. Therefore, such arguments are pointless and nothing more than a sign of insecurity.

Source: