Our guest blogger this week, Shiin Moon, tells us: “I have been living my whole life as a majority South Korean in Seoul and taught elementary students for 5 and a half years. To me, language learning has always been tied to power and social mobility of my students and of myself, and now I am so happy to delve deeper into this association in Montréal. I am a second-year master’s student in the Second Language Education program at McGill University, and interested in language socialization, language ideologies, and language learning experience of migrants in Québec.”
This blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.
“I taught her to use the stronger accent. I told her, I know you are a North Korean, but with the worst North Korean accent. That’s not the way we do it in the South.”
from Moranbong Club
This excerpt was voiced by a South Korean comedian (FYI, not the one in the picture) while she was describing her experience of teaching her fellow North Korean performer how to ‘speak North’ – in a TV talk show named Moranbong Club (Lim & Jung, 2015-present). Her remark implies how North Koreans have been deployed, consumed, and delegitimized in South Korean society, especially through their speech.
North Korean defectors, also known as Northern refugees or ‘new settlers,’ are those who escape North Korea, cutting their ways through the tight restrictions and round-the-clock surveillance by the North Korean government (Jeon, 2000). Their escaping journey is plagued with swindle, sexual exploitation, incarceration, or repatriation to the North, and this experience haunts North Korean defectors even after they have successfully settled in the South (Kang, 2014). This series of adversities is only their first battle. The second one starts when they step inside South Korean society. They are not only thrown in at the deep end of the unfamiliar meritocratic capitalist system, but are also framed within the stereotypes that South Koreans hold about them.
I would like to share two recollections in which I have been one of those majority South Koreans who differentiated, stigmatized, and consumed the ‘poor Norths.’
- Memory 1
When I was a 12-year-old, I encountered North Korean students for the first time. My parents were running a restaurant business near a city slum where government-supported apartments for low-income households were around. A small welcome school for newly-entered Northern refugees was established in the basement of the building complex, which had been a space for a grocery store until then. I’d see them going up and down the stairs when I was sitting in the restaurant. I thought to myself, ‘they all look dark and small.’ I never bothered to get closer and talk to them.
- Memory 2
When I was teaching elementary students, I volunteered for mentoring North Korean defectors’ children in a Summer Camp. I met the two most lovable children there, and many others who were not assigned to me but equally precious. Among those, there stood out a 15-year-old girl in short jeans and a revealing top (in South Korea, this is considered quite a provocative outfit) who was always peppily chirping with someone. My colleague teacher hinted that this girl could have experienced sexual harassment or even prostitution during her course of defection. ‘It is quite common for girls around that age,’ she added.
These instances project two of many ways that South Koreans objectify and inferiorize the Norths. At times, they are considered as primitive outsiders who are undernourished, uncivilized, and uneducated (Memory 1). And their hardships are further displayed as ‘something fascinating’ and consumed as narratives in movies, TV series, or talk shows (Memory 2). These narratives typify various ways of portraying the inferior Norths; frequent among these are the figures of either military spies who aim to destroy “Our” nation; the desperate absconders who head for the emancipatory Southern paradise; or the lovable goofs who are always amazed by the advanced Souths. Under these portrayals lurks the subtle superior-South undertone that reproduces and consolidates how North Koreans are positioned as inferior Others. In Moranbong Club, for example, I noticed that the North Korean cast never speaks ill of the South Korean people, even when the scholarly evidence on South Korea’s society’s discriminatory nature is well-established (Jeon, 2000; Kang, 2014; Shin, 2009; Yang & Lee, 2019). Instead, they resort to the accounts of their tragic defecting trajectories, the inhumane life they led in the North, and the glorious new opportunities they have been given in the South. These discourses strategically lift up the Southern society by degrading the North, while successfully concealing the fact that most of the refugees’ ‘battles’ are far from over.
North Korean defectors still suffer from the derogatory perceptions of others, and the majority of them are reluctant to reveal their North Korean origin unless it is necessary (Shin, 2009). Within this circumstance, the most immediate give-away is their speech. The languages of North and South Korea have been largely differentiated during the seven decades of separation because each side has adhered to different social, economic, and ideological orientations. For instance, the North Korean dialect is characterized by its oratorical intonation and fierce word choices through its mass-media representations. This linguistic disposition is often subject to ridicule or mimicry, and it is rendered more aggressive than it really is by those reproductions. This imagined accent replaces the actual practices of North Koreans and distorts how the Souths perceive the Norths. In other words, common conceptualizations of North Korean language supersede objective language use, and North Korean people are correspondingly demeaned by these misconceptions. As we can infer from the excerpt above, this exaggerated and reified ‘North Korean’ accent is frequently used in comedy bits in the South. The North Korean comedian in the South should conversely learn this version of dialect to ‘sound like a North Korean’. And when she successfully does so, she manages to draw laughter by being the poor, ideological, and backward North.
If this stigmatization is depressing for adults, it is fatal for students. Kim and Shin (2015) report that North Korean defector students experience more depression, anxiety, interpersonal sensitivity, and post-traumatic stress disorder than their Southern counterparts. Also, in a study that tracks the mental health status of North Korean refugee youths for three years, Seong and Park (2021) support this result by documenting the steady increase in their depression rate from 45.3% to 59.4%. These studies clearly illustrate how North Korean students are faced with stress far beyond their control, and how urgent it is to support the early phase of their adaptation.
These problems are aggravated by two different linguistic difficulties for these students. First, their North Korean accent impedes their social connection with other students. Baek (2020) observes that the North Korean refugee students want to erase their accent first and foremost, with a view to concealing their Northern background. Adding to the accent, they are perplexed by the largely divergent vocabulary and phrasal choices of the South Korean language and this makes it harder for them to have ‘natural conversations’ with their Southern friends.
Second, the lack of previous contact with the English language further complicates their adjustment process. Due to the remaining tension from the Cold War, North Korean linguistic policies are shaped by a hostile stance toward the U.S.A.; therefore, American English is strictly prohibited and Russian language learning is highly encouraged (although in recent years, British English is also actively taught among upper class students in North Korea) (Cho et al., 2015). Hence, in South Korea, a society in which English is so prevalent in the linguistic landscape, North Korean students may feel de facto dyslexic when they cannot understand the simplest signs such as ‘bus’ or ‘coffee’ (Lee, 2015).
What is missing throughout this blog post is how South Koreans are making an effort to embrace this population as one of “Us.” Other than governmental and non-governmental support at the institutional level, individual responses to this problematization are very ambivalent; some strongly reject ‘wasting our tax money on our enemies’ (the discourse that has persisted since the Korean War), and others want to help, but not enough to do anything about it. Overall, this discussion is basically silenced. Thus, bringing up this topic in the educational context would be the most gradual but practical way to change the way it is. At least for now, let us just notice what Moranbong Club and other narratives are NOT saying about the Souths.
Baek, I. O. (2020). A study on the non-adaptation pattern of school for North Korean refugee: Focused on Daejeon and Gongju area, Korean Unification Education, 17(1), 53-80.
Cho, J., Lee, K. D., Jung, C. K., & Kang, H. (2015). Education policy, education curriculum, and textbooks in the Kim Jong-un era. KINU.
Jeon, W. T. (2000). Issues and problems of adaptation of North Korean defectors to South Korean society: An in-depth interview study with 32 defectors. Yonsei Medical Journal, 41(3), 362-371.
Kang, M. (2014). Trauma analysis in the story of North Korean Refugees: Focusing on Lee Seung Jun’s case in ‘The story on North Korean refugees in Arduous March period’. literary therapeutics Studies, 30, 413-437.
Kim, H. A. (2016). Meta-analytic review on the mental health among the North Korean refugees in South Korea (depression and post-traumatic stress disorder). Crisisonomy, 12(1), 105-124.
Kim, H. K., & Shin, H. (2015). A comparison of the mental health problems of North Korean adolescent defectors and South Korean adolescents: Focused on gender and age. The Korean Journal of Woman Psychology, 20(3), 347-367.
Lee, H. (2015). Improvement of English learning for North Korean refugee students in South Korea: English educational contexts and issues. Modern English Education, 16(3), 231-250.
Lim, S. J., & Jung, K. H. (2015-present). Moranbong club [TV series]. TV Chosun.
Seong, Y., & Park, S. (2021). Factors affecting changes in the mental health of North Korean refugee youths: A three-year follow-up study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(4), 1696.
Shin, M. N. (2009). The study on the general awareness between South Korean and the displaced people from the North Korea. North Korean Studies, 5(2), 119-143.
Yang, M., & Lee, W. Y. (2019). A comparative study on the mind of South Korean residents and North Korean defectors: Focusing on the perceptions, feelings and attitudes of each other and inner/outer world. North Korean Studies, 15(1), 65-103.