Monday, November 2, 2009

Schizophrenic Han Part III: A purer language, I think not.

After some revision, I wanted to state clearly that the point of this posting is to argue against the notion that North Korean is a more "Korean" or a "purer" form of the Korean Language. I would think the words, perverse distortion, would be more apt to describe the relation of the North Korean variant of the Korean language to that now spoken on the southern half of the peninsula.

The point of this posting is to continue to systematically attack the notion that it is natural for two Koreas to exist and to continually eat away at all the justifications that South Koreans make in order to some how to ease their collective guilt as they lead their moderately wealthty lives as the other half of the nation continues to suffer (For more on how North Koreans continue to suffer see last week's issue of the New Yorker or what Professor Brad DeLong at UC Berkeley has noted to be last weeks "must read.")

I do this under the series of postings called Schizophrenic Han. In the past, I've already been very critical of the North-South States Period Theory that was first mentioned in the book, Samguk Yusa (a millenia after Silla had already unified the Peninsula), and which I point out has only become relevant now, as South Korean "Academia" try to come up with any and all types of excuses to justify their inaction of a unified Korean peninsula.

Now, I'm going to attack another justification that South Koreans oft like to make - that the North Korean is somehow more legitimate today as "her people" speak a more Korean or purer form of the language. I believe I even saw this on Wikipedia at one point and if I see it again, I can promise you that that will be the day I create a Wikipedia account and challenge that claim. You see, to me, this claim of a more Korean language purposely distorts history, so that mostly South Koreans can ease their feeling of collective or national guilt as they live their moderately wealthy lives and shrug aside the ongoing suffering being endured by the other half of the country.

I've always found the claim that North Korean is a more Korean language to be preposterous and revisionist history at its worst, but a recent development in North Korea has made me want to write about it. North Korea last month amended their constitution to eliminate the words "communist" and codified that Kim Jong Il is indeed not just the Dear Leader, but the "Supreme Leader" of the country. Also, Songun(Seongun, 선군), or the Military First policy, has become a governing doctrine or ideology of the country).

This is a short excerpt from an article in the New York Times.

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has officially made Kim Jong-il its “supreme leader” and his “military first” policy its guiding ideology, according to the text of the country’s newly revised Constitution made available on Monday.

Text of the New Constitution (PDF, In Korean)The Constitution also declared for the first time that North Korea “respects and protects” the “human rights” of its citizens, and expunged the term “communism” from its text (New York Times).

I've also added a copy of the new constitution in PDF form (in Korean, unfortunately) in the Selected Articles portion of the blog. And, thanks to students in the DeCal, we now have a translation in English of the DPRK constitution as well.

But, I find this development to be interesting on a couple fronts. In one sense, North Korea has officially given up the fantasy that there could actually be a worker's paradise in a Communist Kingdom -- a bigger oxymoron I cannot fathom (a revolutionary government under dynastic rule?). So, in this sense, North Korea has given up on the claim that it can provide for a better life under her rule. Now, rather than North Korean legitmacy being based on being able to provide a better life for Koreans, legitmacy in part rests on the North Korean Consitution being able to provide for a more "Korean" nation. This can be seen by how often the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's state run news, describes south Korea to be just a puppet state of foreign powers (though, perhaps, at one time it was). One of these claims is that on the basis of language, where North Koreans speak an untainted form of the Korean Language in that it doesn't use many of the loan words found in the Korean spoken in South Korea. This claim is, of course, absurd. Now, let's discuss this remaining claim that North Korea is somehow more legitimate because it's more Korean (Is it because they too have a three class caste system not unlike that of Silla's bone rank system. But, this can't be it either since North Korea seems to base their heritage from Goguryeo, a state that was Silla's rival). What about language?

A common claim is that the North Korean language is more "pure" or more "Korean" (perhaps synonyms for all Koreans) as North Korea has made a systematic effort to eliminate loan words from the North Korean variant of the langauge and, the complete elimination of the teaching of Sino-Korean characters in North Korean schools -- for the most part (there was a law in North Korea that stated to re-introduce a few hundred Hanja characters in the North Korean curriculum, but hey, how seriously can this be taken considering there's a reference towards human rights in the North Korean constitution now. But, also on a tangent, with these same endowments how exactly was it possible that South Korea came to develop democratic institutions?)

People that support this seem to forget that the written Korean Language, Hanguel, only came to widespread usage after Korea lost its independence (so about a hundred years ago). Koreans traditionally like to claim that the nation began in 2333 BCE, so for about 4,200 years Koreans didn't really use Hangeul. Now, considering that all scholarly work up until half a century ago was written using purely Sino-Korean characters either in modified form to fit the "Korean language" spoken at that time or simply, in literary, Classical Chinese up until very recently, eliminating loan words that constitute about 50%-70% of all the words in the Korean language doesn't make the language more Korean, but rather it butchers the language.

There's a couple ways to look at this. For example, Koreans trace back a common heritage to the (Early) Three Kingdoms Period as each Kingdom is seen to be a "Korean" kingdom in that the merger of the three kingdoms respective traditions, languages(yes), and, of course, people gave way to a common Korean heritage. While somewhat similar to how Koreans have strenuously argued that considering Goguryeo to be a minority Chinese Kingdom would be tantamount to stealing Korean heritage and distorting the Korean identity, I think the systematic eradication or elimination or alteration of 50% to 70% of all words in the Korean language is much, much worse than "losing Goguryeo." It not only distorts the "true identity" of the language, but you are basically erasing (or rather choosing to forget) 50%-70% of your identity. Koreans have for a long period of time proudly stated how they have learned much from the Chinese, perhaps the lessons of the Cultural Revolution in China should not be forgotten.

So rather than North Korean being a more a Korean language, it's more along the lines of North Korea being a perverse distortion of the Korean language. Imagine waking up one day and choosing not to use 50% to 70% of the words in your vocabulary (or at least fooling yourself into thinking that you are not using it), then what do you have left? Assuming you somehow retained the ability to still be able to speak and converse with people, you'd be using the few remaining words in your now, much more limited vocabularly a lot, lot more. So even if people could understand what you were saying, they would probably think you are crazy. Perhaps, in a manner not that different than how the rest of the world perceives North Korea today. Why South Koreans in the south look at this favorably is so peculiar and shameful.

(But, oh, South Koreans are doing the same thing except, of course, on a much lesser scale. Why it's so important to have a Korean word for yellow radish is beyond me).

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