Bridging the Cultural and Linguistic Divide: North vs. South Korea
“Crash Landing on You” is a popular South Korean drama whose story describes a paragliding accident unintentionally resulting in a rich South Korean woman being stranded along the border in North Korea. The series starts out as a comedy, and the drama itself forewarns you that the events in the plot are all fictitious. But knowing that I had lived ten years in the DPRK, my Korean-American friends recently asked me how realistic the depiction of North Korea is in the television series. At the moment, I could not answer because I had not yet watched the show.
However, their question peaked my interest, and out of curiosity I began to view the program. To say that there is a disparity between how the show depicts North Korea and the reality of what it is would be an understatement. Even my own teenage children after briefly watching for a few seconds declared with conviction, “That’s not North Korea! They don’t look North Korean!” Having grown up in the DPRK, they know what they are talking about.
From manner of dress to style of make-up, from both the exterior construction and interior design of buildings, to the personalities and expressions of the local people, this popular T.V. series is not a completely accurate description of the DPRK. Since we have actually been to the locations and stayed in the hotels they claim to visit in the drama, it is easy for us to tell the difference. From the Pyongyang train station and the International Airport to the Pyongyang Hotel, we have literally been there, lived there, and done that.
But the drama itself is worth watching. It has to be taken with a grain of salt because of its comedic and dramatic artistic design, but it does clearly portray the cultural and linguistic divide between North and South Korea. For that very reason, I think that is worth the time and effort to watch it. No need to learn Korea, either. English subtitles are available, and the show is featured on Netflix.
Much of the cultural content of the drama comes from misunderstandings and misinterpretations as a result of the linguistic and cultural divide between the countries. The two Koreas have been completely separated since the end of the Korean War in 1953. In nearly 70 years, the language of the North and South have significantly diverged. Some of this is due to original dialectical differences. Other factors for this include the rapid inclusion of socialist jargon in the North and capitalistic jargon in the South. But on top of these reasons are technological advances. South Korea typically has incorporated many foreign words into the language as new items are introduced into the country; whereas, North Korea often creates their own Korean word for such new developments or retains the older version of the word from the pre-Korean War Era.
The fact is that there are at least 5,250 commonly used vocabulary words that have diverged between the North and the South. A recent book on this, Inquiring the Life of North and South Korean Vocabulary (title roughly translated), lists all these vocabulary differences. But it is not just the vocabulary that is different, it is the daily-used phrases, grammar, accent, and culture that results in the linguistic divide.
Although I have spent significant time in the DPRK developing relationships with North Koreans, I am still always learning language. My initial exposure to the Korean language was in South Korea where I grew up. Even then, since I attended an International School and studied in English, my Korean was poor. It wasn’t until I was able to formally study the language as an adult that my speaking and comprehension improved. That education, as well, was in South Korea.
So, when I did start working in North Korea as a humanitarian worker in 2007, I found myself once again as a language learner. Even my husband, who is a native speaker, said that he only understood up to 60% of the conversation. It wasn’t just the vocabulary and grammar that threw him but their thought processes and worldview.
After ten years in the country, I obtained enough basic Northern vocabulary and could understand the local accent and dialect, but my foundation in South Korean was still broader than my foundation in the North Korean dialect. As a result, I have recently also been reading a book when translated is entitled, Cultural Language Classroom. It is a fictitious story about a South Korean woman visiting a North Korean home and learning in context the linguistic differences due to the cultural divide.
The book is written by a former North Korean who has re-settled in South Korea, and it makes some great points. Before we can talk about unification, it states, we first must be able to communicate (pg. 47). South Koreans often laugh when they hear linguistic differences in the North Korean dialect. This may be because it sounds unfamiliar or strange to them, or it may be because they find the word choice inappropriate. But, the book makes another great point, “Differences are just differences, they aren’t wrong” (pg. 77). If we want to understand one another, we first must be willing to accept one another’s differences.
At the end of the drama “Crash Landing on You”, the South Korean woman stranded in North Korea learns to adapt to her new environment and surroundings. She builds relationships with the local people, even to the extent that she even expresses reluctance in returning home to South Korea.
Both South and North Koreans are Korean. They share thousands of years of a common language, culture, and history. It is only in the last 70 years that this common ground has been split. Despite this common history, each country has its own unique cultural and nationalistic perspective. It is imperative that despite these shared experiences wrong assumptions are avoided and misunderstandings are averted. Instead, just like the rest of the world, all Koreans should approach the DPRK with an attitude of a learner.
With this humble approach, it may be possible to learn the North Korean worldview and perspective. As South Koreans learn more deeply of the DPRK and learn of their Northern perspective, they will begin to have a more unbiased understanding of North Korea. And when this veil of misunderstanding is lifted , perhaps the process of reconciliation and peace may reach new possibilities on the Korean Peninsula.