What will happen to Korean language when the two Koreas are reunified?

by Yerim Lee

Language has its own power. The power of language can be a tool to rule other countries because language can shape how people think and express things. For example, when Japan colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945, Korean people learned Japanese at school and they were forced to use only Japanese. It’s because Japanese people wanted to rule not only the territory of Korea but also the mind and soul of Korean people. In these days, however, language is not used as a way of ruling other countries, but it is used to have more power in terms of economic, politic, or social aspects. Related to this power of language, one question has arisen in my mind. What will happen to Korean language when the two Koreas are reunified?

Korea was divided into two countries in 1948. Yet, both countries still share the same people, the same culture, and (almost) the same language. However, it is obvious that the Korean language of South Korea is more spread out in the world mostly due to political reasons. Also, for the same reason, when foreigners want to learn Korean language, they get to learn Korean of South Korea. In this regard, I think the Korean of South Korea definitely has an advantage of North Korean’s Korean. Then, does that mean that when the two Koreas reunify, we should set the official language of reunified Korea as South Korean? Also, if we set South Korean as an official language, does it mean we don’t need to maintain North Korean? I believe we have to consider more aspects to keep both of languages and set a proper language planning/policy for unified Korean. Thus, I’d like to talk about two things that we need to think about when it comes to the unification of two Koreans.

First, I think it has to be taken into consideration the way we merge vocabularies. It’s because I don’t think either of Korean’s vocabulary can be said to be more valuable than the other due to its own characteristics. According to Kim (1996), the internationally defined official language of two Koreas is Korean of South Korea, and Korean of North Korea is separated from the official language as a ‘cultural language’ (Kim, 1996, p. 56). The ‘cultural language’ is set by Kim Il-sung, the previous supreme leader of North Korea, in order to keep characteristics of the Korean language, thus strengthening spiritual ties among Korean people (Kim, 1996). Thus, it is found that North Korean maintains pure Korean words that people in South Korea do not know. For instance, the word for ‘ice cream’ in South Korea is ‘아이스크림 (pronounced as ‘ice cream’) which is just phonetically translated from English. On the other hand, the word for ‘ice cream’ in North Korea is called as ‘얼음보숭이 (pronounced as ‘ulum bosung-I’), which is a pure Korean word without any influence from English or Chinese. In this regard, it can be difficult for North and South Korean people to understand each other very well unless they get to learn these different words from each other. Therefore, unifying vocabularies of the two Koreans needs to be done for keeping the purpose of language use, conversation.

Secondly, we need to consider the rules of writing. The two Koreans have the same writing system, but grammatical or spelling rules in writing are different. It doesn’t mean that we cannot understand each other because of different rules of writing, yet to develop more organized language teaching and better language planning (or policy), it has to be discussed how we adopt different rules and unify those. As we talked about in the last class with the example of Taiwan’s lack of writing system, building and developing a good writing system is required to maintain our own language. Therefore, I think we need to find a way to have a united writing system before we set the “official language” in reunified Korea.

These two things are what I consider for the unification of Korean language from North and South Korea. As a language teacher and language practitioner, is there any other thing that Korean people need to think about for language unification? If you have a good idea or suggestion, please let me know. It will be very appreciated!


Kim, M. S. (1996), Comparison of Korean languages of South and North Korea: Suggestion for Teaching Korean after Reunification of the Two Koreas.

One thought on “What will happen to Korean language when the two Koreas are reunified?”

  1. I think the case of Korea, and a few other countries, in adopting the local language in post-colonial period is commendable. Most countries that were colonized either continued to use the colonial language or were unsuccessful in adopting the local languages. Among the obstacles that stood on the way of making local language expressive and strong educationally and linguistically are the lack of linguistic resources, the inability to keep pace with the increasing advancement in science and technology, and the economic competitiveness. In most formerly colonized countries, there is a perception that the colonial language, especially if it is English, is the key to success educationally and economically, at the individual level as well as at the state level. Take the case of Emirates and Qatar who have decided to shift the medium of instruction from Arabic to English. Koreans, however, were so determined and able to surpass all hurdles and barriers, and hence successful in their linguistic decolonization and assertion of their identity.

    With respect to linguistic corollaries should the reunification of the two Koreans come to pass, fortunately for Koreans, they don’t need to learn an additional language to affirm their identity.as long as there is a political will and determination, especially from the new supreme leader of the northern territory, lexical variation and variation in the writing system should not cause any acrimonious dispute. Normally, the variety that is stronger politically, economically, and technologically will take precedence; therefore, in this case, the southern variety will be easily adopted by the Northerns. Alternatively, variations which are usually at the lexical and phonological levels, and to a lesser extent at the morphological level, will eventually merge, or the more frequent in use will become common and the less frequently used will dwindle. Following the reunification of West and East Germany, west German was stronger at multiple levels and hence was adopted by East German. Similarly, when Yemen was united over 15 years ago, linguistic and cultural variations of the north was smoothly embraced by the south and some lexical variations continued to exist and have become commonplace and mutually understood to both sides of the country. I think the major concern in the Korean case should not be linguistic; rather, it should be social, political, educational and cultural because two extreme ideologies are to be amalgamated, i.e. extreme dictatorship vs. extreme democracy. Besides, hostility of North towards the west as opposed to the intimacy of South is another conundrum to deal with.


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