In North Korea, speaking in Southern accent gets you sent to the coal mines

Authorities are cracking down on youth who are influenced by South Korea movies and songs smuggled in.
By Myung Chul Lee for RFA Korean
In North Korea, speaking in Southern accent gets you sent to the coal mines North Korean youths, shown in this file photo at a patriotic performance in Pyongyang, likely pick up the South Korean accent from outlawed songs, movies and television dramas smuggled into the country on USB flash drives.

UPDATED at 1:53 p.m. EST on 01-03-2023

In North Korea, speaking like a South Korean can get you expelled from school and sent to work in the coal mines.

That’s exactly what happened to four North Korean university students who were caught last month speaking on their cell phones with the softer accent and terms of endearment used by their neighbors in the South, sources inside the country told Radio Free Asia. 

The students likely picked up the manner of speech from listening to outlawed songs, movies or television dramas such as “Crash Landing on You” or “Squid Game” that are smuggled into the country on USB flash drives. 

Speaking in the Seoul dialect has become trendy among young North Koreans, the sources said.

But North Korean authorities view Southern-style speech as a counter-revolutionary crime.

“The phenomenon of using a ‘puppet accent’ is defined by the Central Committee as an unforgivable act of sympathizing with the enemy’s plot to infiltrate bourgeois ideology and culture,” a resident of North Hamgyong province told RFA.

In the past, those caught doing so were required to write a statement of self-criticism promising that they would never again use the accent, said the resident, who declined to be identified so as to speak freely. 

But lately, authorities have “ordered strong countermeasures, saying that the phenomenon of using the South Korean accent is a counterrevolutionary crime that can disintegrate our internal affairs,” he said.

North Korea has clamped down after it enacted a law in December 2020, the Rejection of Reactionary Thought and Culture Act, with short-term punishment of up to two years of hard labor for those who speak, write or sing in South Korean style.

Authorities impose tougher punishments of up to 15 years of hard labor for those caught watching South Korean videos, with the possibility of the death penalty for people who distribute them.

This is the law that led authorities in October to execute two teenagers who were caught selling thumb drives containing South Korean movies or TV shows.

Hey, honey

In the early December incident, one of the students from an agricultural college in Chongjin was overheard by an enforcement agent uttering the word jagiya, which correlates to “honey” or "darling" in English, in a South Korean accent in the waiting room of a local railroad station. The other three were caught making similar remarks.

The case came to the attention of the provincial Workers' Party of Korea committee, and was then reported to the Central Committee, the party’s chief policy-making body. 

The students were expelled from college and assigned to work at a coal mine in Onsong county, near the Chinese border.

Following the incident,  authorities have ordered a crackdown on such speech and strengthened ideological education for young people, according to the sources. 

“A crackdown is underway on the actual use of the puppet tone by all college students in downtown Chongjin as well as at the agricultural college where the incident occurred,” said the North Hamgyong resident.

‘Eradicate anti-socialist behavior’

Despite sharing the same language, North and South Koreans typically have different accents and the terminology and the manner of speech can also be quite different.

For example, in the South, a woman can call her significant other, or older male friends “oppa,” which literally means older brother, but not in the North, where it is used only for older male siblings.

Authorities also have cracked down on officials of the Socialist Patriotic Youth League in North Hamgyong Province and Chongjin city for failing to properly educate and control the college students, said a resident of adjacent Ryanggang province. 

“The authorities instructed the Socialist Patriotic Youth League to thoroughly implement a youth education project to eradicate anti-socialist behavior on this occasion,” said the source.

Depending on the seriousness of the problem, officers deemed to have irresponsibly conducted the youth education project during the youth league’s inspection are expected to be dismissed and be punished by being sent to perform labor in rural or other remote areas of the country for a set period, he said. 

“The league officials are nervous,” he added.

North Korea’s Central Committee warned league officials and those who lack the will and responsibility to eradicate “anti-socialist phenomena” that they would be placed under ideological review, according to the source. 

“However, no matter how strongly youth education is pushed, the officials do not have the power to change the accents [used by] young people,” he said. “The league officials are complaining about the higher authorities’ attitude of shifting responsibility to them whenever something happens.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung for RFA Korean. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

Update adds linguistic and cultural context 


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Apr 11, 2023 12:39 PM

North Korea is a failed state and will never achieve anything except an increasingly bad reputation in the world