World·CBC in South Korea

A North Korean's unexpected challenges in the South: Learning the language, ditching the accent

Deep dialectical differences have emerged between North and South Korea over the decades, a surprising change for many North Korean defectors who find that among their biggest challenges to adapting to the South is learning a language they thought they knew.

Now free in South Korea, defectors from the North find unexpected discrimination, language challenges

Ken Eom, a North Korean refugee now in graduate school for policy analysis, is pictured in Seoul. Eom says many North Korean defectors face discrimination in the South, and his own mother was restricted to menial jobs due in part to her background in North Korea. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Not a day passed during his 10 years "enslaved" in North Korea's military when Ken Eom didn't ache with hunger or witness grave human rights abuses.

When he fled in 2010 to South Korea, he was astonished by how much a shared Korean language and culture had split after decades of war and division. Not only did this free and modern Korea look different than the only Korea he ever knew, the language in the South sounded at times bewildering.

Listen to Ken Eom say a Korean greeting using both the North Korean and South Korean accents 0:52

His Northern inflection struck his co-Koreans as foreign, a telltale sign that also led to problems in the South.

"I could understand maybe 70 per cent" of the Korean conversations on the streets of Seoul, Eom, 37, said recently in an interview at an English school in the South Korean capital. "But on the different side, the South Koreans couldn't understand me! They couldn't understand our language."

Through his years in the military, Eom was loyal to the regime, even after watching fellow soldiers get crushed under steel beams during forced construction projects in Pyongyang.

When he returned to his home in Hasong City near the Paektu Mountain on the Chinese border, he found his house empty. His family had fled the brutal dictatorship.

In 2010, he followed them, escaping through China to South Korea.

Listen to Ken Eom saying, 'How are you?' in both the South Korean and North Koran dialects 0:35

Unless a defector spent time living near Pyongyang or another city close to South Korea's border, Eom said, a Northern accent — faster, more clipped and with a "spiky, up-down" intonation — could be so thick that South Koreans would have trouble picking up half the speaker's words.

Ostensibly safe in the South, Eom found himself contending with accent discrimination.

Ken Eom, 37, a North Korean defector, at the Seoul-based English language school Teach North Korean Refugees. Eom says North Korean refugees often face discrimination in South Korea for the way they speak. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Eom recalled phoning a gas station to inquire about job openings. The prospective employer, detecting an accent, cut him off and asked if Eom was from China.

"I said, 'Uh, I'm not Chinese people. I'm actually North Korean,'" Eom said. The gas station manager made it clear he wasn't interested.

"I don't know what exactly he feels when he heard my dialect, my accent. But I think he's afraid to get employees who are North Korean refugees."

'I'm not trying to cover my identity'

It's common among defectors in their 20s and 30s to try to erase any traces of their North Korean backgrounds upon arriving to South Korea, in an effort to neutralize potential stigma associated with being raised in the regime, said Eom, a graduate student studying policy analysis at Korea University.

"Young people, especially who want to go to university, who want to work, they're trying to learn the Seoul accent."

Including himself.

"But not because I'm trying to cover my identity," Eom said. Only because it's easier for Seoul residents to understand him when he switches linguistic styles to something Seoul ears are familiar with.

Some of his defector friends can mask their Northern accents and use a "Seoul dialect," he said, "but some of them, they're afraid to reveal their identity ... [that] they're from North Korea."

Dialectical differences

When Tto-Hyang, 28, first found work as a cashier at a convenience store, she became hyper-aware of her accent. Customers would ask where she was from when she greeted them.

Tto-Hyang, 28, is a North Korean defector and Seoul-based student studying social work. When she first arrived to South Korea in 2009, she said, her accent invited stares and questions about where she was from. (Submitted by Tto-Hyang)

"It's easy to recognize we're from North Korea, but the way people regard North Koreans is not good, so it's really challenging to find a job," she said.

She tried for years to "fix" her accent, she said, but after 20 years living in North Korea, it wasn't easy. The old dialect still slips out.

'Loan words'

Of the striking changes between North and South Korea over the past seven decades of separation, language is the least visible. Deep dialectical differences emerged as North Korea self-isolated and South Korea developed rapidly into the 11th-largest economy, adopting American English "loan words" after cultural exposure.

Listen to Eunkoo Lee pronounce the word South Koreans use for 'goalkeeper,' versus the word used by North Koreans 0:31

South Koreans will naturally mix in English when conversing. For example:

  • "Orange juice" becomes "olenji juseu." North Koreans would be confounded by the term, only knowing juice as "dan mul," which literally translates as "sweet water."
  • North Koreans wash their hair with "meorimulbinu," meaning "hair water soap," whereas South Koreans have adopted the word "shampoo."
  • On a hot day, North Koreans might want a scoop of "eoreum-guaja," or "ice snack," whereas South Koreans would want "ice cream."

In South Korea, "hamburger" and "self serve" have entered a style of Korean-style English that would be meaningless to North Korean newcomers.

"They call it 'Konglish,' explains Casey Lartigue, the Seoul-based co-founder of Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), a non-profit program that aims to help defectors reintegrate into society through free English lessons. "A lot of refugees will struggle because of that, just the day-to-day conversations with South Koreans."

Eunkoo Lee, left, and Casey Lartigue are the co-founders of Teach North Korean Refugees, an English-language school and nonprofit in Seoul. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

In a 2014 poll, South Korea's Ministry of Unification found that more than 40 per cent of North Korean refugees cited communication challenges as a major challenge for assimilating.

Although English loan words barely infiltrated North Korea, some Russian was adopted.

"Maybe just one per cent from Russia," Eom said.

"Kamaz," a type of heavy-cargo truck, became the same word for North Koreans. Eom said the North Korean term "kotjebi," describing the nation's homeless and often orphaned beggar children, is derived from the Russian term "kochevnik," meaning nomad.

'It's about perception'

South Korea is already home to a variety of dialects. Natives of Jeju Island, the popular holiday destination off the coast of the Korean peninsula, speak in a dialect often incomprehensible to many mainlanders.

Hockey players Jong Su Hyon of North Korea, left, and Park Jong-ah of Sourh Korea carry the torch during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Friday in Pyeongchang. (Petr David Josek/Associated Press)

A Northern accent, however, can invite antagonism. Some South Koreans may view North Koreans as uneducated, uncouth or untrustworthy.

"It's about perception, and about all the baggage that comes with being perceived as North Korean," said Young-Key Kim-Renaud, professor emeritus and former chair of the East Asian languages and literatures department at George Washington University.

In the case of Koreans, Kim-Renaud said, "it's much more pronounced because both sides really brainwashed their kids from early on."

Eunkoo Lee, who co-founded TNKR with Lartigue, remembers learning in elementary school "that North Koreans are the enemy."

"We had a war between two Koreas. We killed each other," she said. "Naturally, historically, the media often talks about North Koreans in a mostly negative way."

When the unified North-South women's hockey team played together during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, what South Koreans knew as a "goalkeeper" or "gol-kipeo" was better known to North Korean players as a "door keeper" or "mun-jigi," Lee explained.

The hockey team created a special dictionary to bridge the linguistic divide. 

A joint Unified Korean Dictionary, known as Gyeoremal Keunsajeon, has also been in the works for years. Some 300,000 words have been banked by linguists from both Koreas forming a joint compilation committee. The dictionary is due to be completed next year.

As for Eom, he says he can now pass in conversation as a native of Seoul. After he gets his policy analysis graduate degree at Korea University, he might run for office some day "to help improve the lives of other North Korean defectors."

If that day comes, Eom hopes people will listen to what he says — not just how he says it.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?