What is McDonald’s and Ice Cream? North and South Korean language barriers

I came passed an older post of mine which I shared on SNS this spring, but not on my blog – so I’m catching up on that. It’s an ad for a South Korean-North Korean translating app which was created by a Korean non-profit organization to cut down the language barriers between North and South Koreans. It seems that until creating this app, there was no handy translator for North Korean defectors to help them understand everyday South Korean vocabulary. This was very striking to me as I didn’t picture the seriousness of language difficulties being much worse than “having an accent”. Also I felt that my North Korean friends didn’t have that much of a struggle with South Korean words as they had (secretly) watched K-dramas and movies or listened to K-pop before fleeing their country. Yet, I was aware of that North Korean defectors struggle adapting to South Korean life and that there are many programs supporting them on their way.

People often ask me about the relationship between North and South Korea which is

a difficult topic to tackle; mainly because one knows so little about North Korea. As Germans we are interested in if the Koreas will unify anytime soon. German history has taught us that it is possible to unite a divided country, however, we are also aware of the many struggles and the social impact it has until today.

Germany was separated over 40 years and the time was long and hard, so one can only imagine how tough it must be for the Koreas which have been divided for over 70 years. The two countries have developed completely different and North Korean defectors have great troubles managing their new everyday life. In many ways they are almost as foreign as other non-Koreans and have to learn the South Korean peculiarities.


The two countries have also developed two different vocabulary sets over time due to political, cultural and economic effects. South Korean language is clearly influenced by English (U.S. military, movies and music) and many Konglish (Korean-English) mark the modern South Korean language. North Korea, on the other hand, values language purification and therefore only allows word of Korean origin and rejects linguistic influences from outside. So North Korean defectors suffer from misunderstandings, confusion, neglection, disparity and unemployment as they can’t converse properly. Experts state it takes about two years for a North Korean defector to adapt to the South Korean vocabulary (read the supporting article, Kim 2015: 2 Koreas face increasing linguistic divide).


Germans like to joke about their different regional dialects and even print dictionaries to help out other Germans, but no one majorly suffers in the way the North Korean defectors do. Let’s hope this new app from Korea improves a better understanding between North and South Koreans and improves their relationship.


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