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That's 'Comrade' To You! North Korea Fights To Purge Outside Influences On Language

<em>Crash Landing on You</em>, a series on Netflix, has been a hit across the Korean Peninsula since it launched in 2019 — including in the North, where the authorities banned it but it has circulated on smuggled thumb drives.
Crash Landing on You, a series on Netflix, has been a hit across the Korean Peninsula since it launched in 2019 — including in the North, where the authorities banned it but it has circulated on smuggled thumb drives.

Updated August 11, 2021 at 3:44 PM ET

SEOUL — In the show Crash Landing on You, a rich South Korean woman accidentally paraglides into North Korea, where she is rescued by an army officer and falls in love with him. The series, which was released on Netflix in 2019, was a hit across the Korean Peninsula — including in the North, where it circulated on smuggled thumb drives.

"It created quite a stir, with Kim Jong Un even forbidding people from watching it," says Kang Nara, a North Korean defector in Seoul who served as a consultant to the show.

That's not surprising, as all South Korean content is effectively banned in North Korea.

Kang says she found Crash Landing on You appealing for its realistic depictions of life in the North, including the language. As in real life, North Koreans in the drama, for example, call their intimate partners "comrade" instead of "honey."

But differences in language from the South are a sensitive issue for the North Korean regime. It has fought for more than half a century to purge North Korea's language of foreign influences, and for roughly two decades to keep out southern-style expressions that northerners are gleaning from bootlegged South Korean TV dramas, movies and K-pop music.

Last December, the government passed a law punishing anyone caught owning or distributing foreign cultural products containing "reactionary ideology and culture," or using South Korean expressions in their speech or writing.

"The ideological and cultural penetration under the colorful colored signboard of the bourgeoisie is even more dangerous than enemies who are taking guns," warned the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper in an article last month.

North Korean defector and YouTube vlogger Kang Nara speaks at an interview in Seoul.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
North Korean defector and YouTube vlogger Kang Nara speaks at an interview in Seoul.

South Korean pop spreads north

Kang was born into a well-off family in Chongjin, North Korea's third largest city. She watched her first South Korean TV drama with friends at age 14, and was struck by the South Korean style of speech.

"In South Korea, people say things like, 'Have you eaten yet' or 'Did you sleep well,' and address each other affectionately, like 'honey' or 'sweetie,' she says in a downtown Seoul cafe. "You don't hear such things in North Korea."

Even more striking to Kang was the dramas' subject matter.

"In North Korea, films are all about the party, the country, the state," she explains. "But South Korean dramas were about everyday life, like dating, falling in love, dressing nicely and having fun, and I liked that."

Kang and her friends started texting each other on their cellphones using South Korean slang. They also took their fashion cues from the South.

"My school uniform skirt was long because short skirts are not allowed in North Korea. So I made the skirt shorter," Kang recalls.

"The school punished me for being tainted by decadent capitalist style," she says. "They put me up on a stage to face criticism, and made me clean the school bathroom with a shovel." The toilets in her school were primitive, and Kang had to shovel excrement out of them.

Two Koreas' versions of their shared language are diverging

The versions of Korean spoken in the North and South are similar but have grown apart over the seven decades since the peninsula was divided into two nations.

"Recently, speech in South Korea is changing faster and broadening the gap between the two. Language in North Korea has remained pretty much the same since the 1960s," says Lim Boseon, the director of a project creating a Korean dictionary of both northern and southern words.

The South Korean language is evolving faster, he says, because it is absorbing more new terms and ideas from the rest of the world. North Korea, meanwhile, exercises strict control over people and information entering and exiting the country.

He notes that the governments of both Koreas have tried to tell their citizens which words to use, or not use.

"North Korea has enforced its purification policy more strictly, but their success rate may not be that high," he says. "And in South Korea, it has almost always failed."

Another difference Lim notes is the way the two regimes view language. "North Korea sees language as a tool for revolution and ideological education of the general public," he says, and therefore language must be simplified and optimized for use in propaganda.

Lexicographers from the two Koreas work on compiling a joint dictionary in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2014.
/ The Joint Board of South and North Korea for the Compilation of Gyeoremal-keunsajeon (Unabridged and Unified Korean Dictionary)
Lexicographers from the two Koreas work on compiling a joint dictionary in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2014.

Lim says North Korea is highly selective in choosing which foreign expressions it purges. Words derived from Chinese characters, for example, "cannot be replaced altogether because ... they have coexisted in the Korean language for such a long time that they can almost be called Korean."

The South Korean team has finished its part of the dictionary, but Lim says strained relations between the two countries has stalled the project and the northerners are not responding to his letters.

"The compilation of this dictionary is an apolitical project," he insists, "and the North Korean scholars we have worked with see it that way too."

The North uses extreme deterrents for content from the South

But nothing in North Korea is immune from politics, including language. And the drive to rid foreign influence from speech continues.

Kang, the defector, says getting caught with foreign cultural products can result in fines, jail terms or worse, and the regime uses some violators as a warning to others.

"I went with a group from my school," Kang says. "You would see the person tied to a post and soldiers with long guns would execute them."

It's hard to think of a more extreme deterrent against watching soap operas and movies.

But it did not work on Kang for long.

"For about a day afterwards, I couldn't even eat," she recalls. "How could you have any appetite after watching the blood splattering? I thought I would never watch another South Korean drama again. But after about a day, I went back to watching, thinking it should be fine, as long as I don't get caught."

South Korean soaps are addictive stuff, Kang admits, and she had to have her fix, which was the next episode of whatever she was watching. In 2014, she went in search of the life she saw and aspired to on the screen, and defected to South Korea.

She now stars in her own YouTube channel, with nearly 300,000 subscribers. Her message to them is that not all North Koreans are impoverished and sullen automatons.

"I hope that people don't see all North Koreans as scary people," she says. "We, too, go out with friends, go to Karaoke and have romances."

Kang now speaks accentless, southern-style Korean, and she's even teaching her viewers some North Korean.

The name of her channel is Nolsae Nara. Nolsae is North Korean slang. It suggests someone who is fun-loving, and affluent.

NPR's Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.