[FOUNTAIN]The Korean language also needs unifyingOn March 17, 2000, when Song Ho-kyung, the vice chairman of North Korea’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, met in Beijing with South Korea’s then-Minister of Culture and Tourism, Park Ji-won, he said, “I have come to prepare ‘a grave accident’ in the history of our division.”
The two were in Beijing for preliminary discussions about the upcoming inter-Korean summit. Mr. Song’s comment completely perplexed Mr. Park, who thought at first that he was talking about a disastrous incident like the Korean War.
When Mr. Park’s facial expression become rigid, Mr. Song rephrased his comment. “I meant we should work together to accomplish a historically significant task.” Now Mr. Park understood what he meant. As Mr. Park later recalled the episode, he thought at first that things were souring.
On June 13 of that year, Kim Jong-il was chatting with then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung at the Paekhwawon State Guesthouse. The North Korean leader said, “The schedule has been tense, so the noodles might not taste very good.” President Kim was lost for a moment. He knew Mr. Kim was talking about the cold noodle soup they were having, but he had no idea that “tense” could mean “short of time” in North Korea. Kim Jong-il, for his part, later confided to a Russian diplomat that he could understand only 80 percent of what President Kim said to him.
When the Korean Peninsula was divided in 1945, the Korean language was divided too. The gap grew as Pyongyang exploited the language for socialist purposes. In the South, people adopted foreign words and phrases that diversified the language. The language barrier between the South and the North has gotten so high that we sometimes need an interpreter.
When an assemblyman offered some tea to Kim Hye-yeon, a North Korean actress and defector, she said, “I have no business with it.” In North Korea, “I have no business” means “it won’t be necessary.” The assemblyman had no idea what the phrase meant, and thought she was being rude. Ms. Kim must have wished for an interpreter at the time.
During this week’s Liberation Day festivities, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to make efforts to unify the standards of Korean writing and speech. The two Koreas also have decided to rush the joint compilation of the Korean Language Grand Dictionary. As the North Koreans might put it, they have accomplished a “grave accident.” Once the two Koreas recover the homogeneity of the language, communication will be much more straightforward and clear, and we will be a step closer to the recovery of national homogeneity.
by Lee Sang-il
The writer is a deputy international news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.