North Korea

North Korea sentences 20 young athletes for ‘speaking like South Koreans’


Skaters and skiers were caught on video using banned words while playing a game during training.

North Korea sentences 20 young athletes for ‘speaking like South Koreans’

Twenty North Korean ice skaters and skiers will spend the next few years in a prison camp, sources tell Radio Free Asia. Shown: A North Korean ski resort used for Olympic training.

About 20 aspiring North Korean winter athletes were abruptly sentenced to three to five years of hard labor in prison camps after they were found to have used South Korean vocabulary and slang while playing a word game, sources in the country say.

It’s the latest example of authorities imposing draconian punishments to try to stamp out use of the “puppet language” and “capitalist” influences in daily life – despite the flood of illegal South Korean dramas and songs that many North Koreans secretly watch after obtaining them on thumb drives smuggled into the country.

The ice skaters and skiers, all high school graduates under the age of 25 from Ryanggang province, were publicly disgraced at a square in Hyesan on April 3, a resident in the city on the Chinese border told Radio Free Asia’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“Residents think that it is excessive that they were sentenced between three and five years” of hard labor, another source in the city said. “It would be impossible to count how many hundreds or thousands of South Korean movies and dramas are easily available to us.”

The incident happened during winter training for promising athletes from all over the province that was held in Samjiyon, a recently finished resort town.

Apparently, one of the athletes took a video of the young people playing a word game called mal kkori itgi, where the object is to make a sentence that starts with the final word of the previous player’s sentence, and some of the athletes used vocabulary that was distinctly South Korean, a second source from the same province said.

The video was found on the phone of one of the female athletes during a random inspection raid by police of her home – a frequent occurrence in North Korea when police look for contraband – and was reported to authorities. It wasn’t clear if she had taken the video or if it was sent to her, the first source said.

Provincial party officials tried to cover up the incident, but the police officer went higher to the Central Committee – a senior panel overseeing the country’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party – “which made the problem even bigger,” he said.

Divided language

Sources didn’t give any examples of the offending words or phrases, but in recent cases North Korean authorities have punished people for using South Korean terms of endearment that equate to “honey,” or various loan words that have been borrowed from English or other languages – which North Korea rejects as “capitalist.”

Though North and South Koreans speak a mutually intelligible language, there are differing dialects throughout the country, and the language has developed differently north and south of the border after the 1950-53 Korean War. 

RFA previously reported numerous instances of people being punished for speaking like South Koreans, and also shocking cases where people were executed for trying to sell contraband videos and music on thumb drives or micro SD cards.

But with illegal South Korean movies and TV shows easily distributed among the public on thumb drives and micro SD cards, most young people have gotten used to how Korean sounds South of the border, often speaking that way themselves. 

The North Korean government recently passed the Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Act, which underscores that the Pyongyang dialect is the standard language, and doles out severe punishments for speaking like a South Korean, or the death penalty for teaching others how to.

Parents punished

What’s more, the parents of the offending athletes were also punished: They lost their prestigious official positions and their families were deported to the rural countryside, the first source said.

“Residents were not happy with the punishment, saying it was unreasonably harsh to punish such promising athletes simply because they spoke a South Korean word,” the second source said. “Most of the athletes in question are the children of powerful officials, but since this is an issue that went as high as the Central Committee [of the country’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party,] an example was made of them.

With so much South Korean popular culture accessible to North Koreans, any efforts to eliminate capitalist influence is futile, the first source said.

“They can call it a ‘puppet language’ all they want, but for all their crackdowns on speaking ‘like a South Korean,’ close friends are still going to keep watching South Korean movies and dramas in secret,” he said. “How is it possible to eradicate it completely?”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

Photo in folder
Twenty North Korean ice skaters and skiers will spend the next few years in a prison camp, sources tell Radio Free Asia. Shown: A North Korean ski resort used for Olympic training.  Credit: Associated Press file photo

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