Talking like ‘capitalist’ South Koreans can lead to prison or death in North Korea

Publicly calling your spouse ‘honey’ – not ‘comrade’– could put your life at risk.
By Jieun Kim for RFA Korean
2023.03.22

North Koreans are secretly watching and listening to so many South Korean movies and songs smuggled into the country that they are becoming increasingly worried that they might let a banned word slip – and face prison time or even death for using “capitalist” lingo, sources in the country tell Radio Free Asia.

“Residents who are already accustomed to the South Korean way of speaking now feel like they have to practice the Pyongyang dialect,” said a resident in the northwestern province of North Pyongan, referring to the capital. 

“They are worried that South Korean words will unintentionally or unknowingly come out of their mouths and that they will be punished,” he said.

For example, North Korean women dare not call their husbands or boyfriends  “jagiya” (which correlates to honey) or “oppa” (another term of endearment which literally means older brother). Instead, they must stick with “dongji,” (comrade), the source said.

People are also having to avoid using South Korean loan words from English such as ‘paesyeon’ (fashion), ‘heeoseutail’ (hairstyle) and ‘waipeu’ (wife).

“Even openly saying ‘I love you’ is evidence that they have seen South Korean movies and such language has become normalized,” the source said.  

North Korean authorities are aware of the spreading use of South Korean terms and are intent on “wiping out the rotten language of capitalism,” said a second source based in the same province. 

RFA previously reported instances of people being punished for speaking like South Koreans, and also  shocking cases where people were executed for trying to sell contraband videos and music on thumb drives.

But the recently passed Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Act goes even further. 

North Korea sentenced to death a man who smuggled and sold copies of the Netflix series “Squid Game” [shown], sources have told RFA. Credit: AFP Photo / NETFLIX
North Korea sentenced to death a man who smuggled and sold copies of the Netflix series “Squid Game” [shown], sources have told RFA. Credit: AFP Photo / NETFLIX

Under this law, those found to have even taught or influenced others toward adopting this kind of speech could get the death penalty.

But for some people, speaking like an upper class Seoulite just comes naturally after decades of exposure.

So that’s prompted an odd situation where people are having to relearn how to speak like a proper North Korean through practice, sources say.

Divided by a common language

Though North and South Koreans speak a mutually intelligible language, the peninsula can be divided into several major regional dialects. 

Since the end of the Korean war, the respective governments of the North and South enacted differing standardization policies that have led to differences in spelling, the use of loan words from other languages, and most importantly, pronunciation.

In the North, the dialect of the capital Pyongyang is considered standard, whereas in the South, the standard language is modeled after how people talk in Seoul. 

Additionally, the seven decades of separation since the end of the Korean War have resulted in each side of the border adopting different slang, idioms and even terms of endearment.

Under North Korean policy, loan words originating in English or other Western languages have been effectively scrubbed from the standard language – unlike in the South, where such loan words are readily absorbed into everyday use.

But advances in technology over the years made South Korean media more accessible to North Koreans despite government efforts to stop them from watching it.

First it was clumsily distributed in the 1980s in bulky VHS cassettes, but by the late 90’s the medium of choice became video CDs. By the early 2000s, people were sharing the latest hit series on easily concealable USB flash drives, and now they are passed around on tiny microSD cards.

Among young people especially, it has become more than a trend to speak like a South Korean by emulating illegal media. It could be said in many cases that it is how they naturally speak, and they are simply emulating each other. 

Alternate reality

These movies and TV shows have done more than introduce North Koreans to new slang and vocabulary. They have unveiled a world of freedom and prosperity they have come to envy, and as such South Korean-style speech has come to represent those dreams, the first source said.

Among young North Koreans, it has become more than a trend to speak like a South Korean by emulating illegal foreign shows [shown]. Credit: Associated Press file photo
Among young North Koreans, it has become more than a trend to speak like a South Korean by emulating illegal foreign shows [shown]. Credit: Associated Press file photo

“The South Korean lifestyles shown in South Korean movies is a fantasy world to North Koreans,” the first source said. “No matter how much the North Korean authorities emphasize our national identity and characteristics, it will not be easy to eradicate the [Seoul] dialect.

Those most in danger of being caught speaking like South Koreans are families of judicial officials, because their power enables them to watch more illegal media without punishment, the first source said.

Ironically, these are the same people whose job it is to crack down on illegal videos, the source said. 

These officials “are supposed to keep and protect the system,” he said. “But they are the ones immersed in South Korean movies and dramas … to the point that they are the ones spreading around South Korean words.” 

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster

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