1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Can a dictionary bring peace to the Korean Peninsula?

March 18, 2021

South Korea hopes that a joint project to create a comprehensive record of the two Koreas' shared language can help bridge the divide between the nations.

Soldiers from North and South Korea verify the removal of guard posts on each side of the Demilitarized Zone
Soldiers from North and South Korea verify the removal of guard posts on each side of the Demilitarized ZoneImage: Reuters/South Korean Defence Ministry

South Korea is attempting to breathe new life into an unconventional initiative that was first announced 16 years ago as a way of bringing the feuding governments in Pyongyang and Seoul closer together.  

It's about creating a unified dictionary of the Korean language, a plan that still faces a number of challenges before it can be completed. 

Arguably the biggest hurdle is that while the Unification Ministry in the South is pushing hard for communication and collaboration on the project, it is being met with stony silence from the North. 

Speaking at a press conference in Seoul in February, Unification Minister Lee In-young called on both sides to resume the project, known as the "Gyeoreomal-keunsajeon," meaning inter-Korean dictionary, as a "firm step" towards the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. 

"We hope … for the early resumption and completion of the project, which is currently 81% completed," he said. 

Koreans on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula are immensely proud of their language and alphabet, known as "hangul." That pride runs so deep that they even have a national holiday, with hangul celebrated every October 9. 

Koreas have shared but distinctly different languages

As a way of harnessing that national pride, former South Korean Prime Minister Roh Moo-hyun announced in 2005 the formation of a panel of experts from the North and South to create a joint dictionary that reflected both societies' words.

Seoul has been paying for the initiative through the Inter-Korean Cooperation fund, providing around 3 billion won (€2.23 million, $2.66 million) a year. 

Divided on the 38th parallel since the end of the three-year Korean War in 1953, the societies in communist North and capitalist South evolved in very different directions, which was reflected in their shared but distinctly different languages. 

The South was open to international influences through the media and music, and people were able to freely travel abroad, meaning that foreign phrases were adopted and worked into everyday language.

The North, on the other hand, chose to largely seal its borders and keep external influences at arms' length, with ordinary citizens taught to use words that extolled the virtues of their own unique political and cultural system. 

Differences of interpretation

The two sides also had to negotiate over the meaning of some common words, such as "eunhaeng," which means bank.

While people in the South carry out bank transactions on a daily basis, they only happen between groups or state-run business entities in the North. 

Scholars working on the dictionary made good progress initially, but the program was suspended in March 2010 after the South Korean corvette Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo off the west coast of the peninsula, with the loss of 46 of the ship's 104 crew.

North Korea continues to deny that it carried out the attack.  

Discussions resumed in 2014 and it is estimated that the majority of the 330,000-word tome has been completed — but the project ground to a halt again in 2016 as relations between the two governments once more deteriorated into recrimination and heightened military tensions.

The North conducted a nuclear test in January of that year and closed the Kaesong industrial zone, which was meant to serve as another symbol of closer North-South cooperation. 

That tension has not yet dissipated, but Lee is optimistic that the project can be resuscitated and serve as one of the building blocks to an improved bilateral relationship.

"There is a lot to be said for these sorts of culture-based projects, such as joint archaeological research, language studies, UNESCO World Heritage sites and so on, in building better cross-border ties," said Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University. 

"But this, of course, all depends on the North's willingness to cooperate and work with the South," he told DW. "In the absence of any willingness to at least talk to the South — which is the situation that we are in at the moment — it is simply not going to work."

A former South Korean diplomat who was instrumental in North-South cooperation under previous administrations in Seoul, was even more skeptical of the project.

The Kaesong industrial zone was meant to serve as another symbol of closer North-South cooperation
The Kaesong industrial zone was meant to serve as another symbol of closer North-South cooperationImage: Reuters/K.Hong-Ji

'Constant disagreements'

"The idea was probably a good one, but it is difficult to make progress when there are constant disagreements on the meaning of phrases or the political connotations," said the former diplomat, who did not want to be named. 

"The disagreements over interpretations became childish," he told DW. "The discussions on terms such as 'human rights' or 'liberation' became bogged down in the semantics of both sides. 

"And it did not help that all the money for the project was provided by the South," he added. 

Instead of serving as a confidence-building measure that would lead to bigger and more meaningful exchanges between the two sides, the dictionary project has gotten stuck, he said, while any move to revive it will lead to the same issues re-emerging. 

"The Unification Ministry has so many ideas, plans and projects, but they cannot overcome the anger of the North," he said. "The people there don't want to hear how the South is helping them with medical aid, food or compiling a dictionary. The people of the North have been told that the South is their archenemy and to be suspicious of any joint projects. 

"How did they ever think this could succeed?"

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea