Northern Exposures: A Primer
to Language in the DPRK - Choson,
Koguryo, Koryo, and Choson again

A new blog series on language in the DPRK

Koryo Tours proud to present Northern Exposures: A Primer to Language in the DPRK, a new blog series on the vocabulary, grammar, phrases, and all matters linguistic across the country.

When starting out to learn Korean, the great majority of students begin with the Seoul-based language of South Korea, rather than that of the North Korea based on language of Pyongyang. While both are mutually intelligible, there are some marked differences akin to the differences between British and American English. The humble aim of Northern Exposures is to introduce aspects of the language specific to the northern region of Korea. We hope it will help both students of Korean and visitors to the DPRK to learn more about the country's history, culture, and society.

Throughout we'll assume basic knowledge of the Korean alphabet (한글 in the south, 조선글 in the north). Indeed, it is easier (and faster) to learn the Korean alphabet itself than any of the romanisation systems!

Our regular readers may have notices that we have once again adapted the name of another great Anglo-American cultural institution for a blog series title, following in the footsteps of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the DPRK, Yanggak Island Discs, A Pyongyang Home Companion, and Pyongyang Review of Books. Shameless, indeed!

If you happen not to be up to speed on 1990's American television, Northern Exposure (1990-95) was a comedy-drama set in small-town Alaska, but filmed in the great state of Washington. Northern Exposure helped put the American Pacific Northwest on the map as an influential cultural centre, along with the children's adventure film The Goonies (1985), David Lynch's enigmatic TV series Twin Peaks (1990-91; remake coming this year to Showtime) and grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots.

Before this becomes too much of an aside from matters Korean, let's take the time to note that some cultural products of the Pacific Northwest renaissance have even reached the DPRK. The 1987 heart-stopping film Benji the Hunted is available on DVD in North Korea Korea. Said film is about a lovable dog aiding a group of orphaned cougar cubs while lost in the vast forested wilderness of the northwestern United States.

Musicians of the Pacific Northwest, namely Seattle's Jimi Hendrix and the instrumental surf rock of The Ventures of Tacoma, have had some influence on modern Korean guitarists. How many times has this writer been asked to translate and explain the meaning of 'Wipe Out' and 'Pipeline' to Korean musicians? And besides the influence can at be heard in the music - lay down that sweet surf guitar on me! Like the cowbell, I gotta have more surf guitar baby. Guess what, I gotta fever and the only prescription is more surf guitar!

This is perhaps all fitting as Pyongyang is the traditional centre of northwestern Korea, also known traditionally as the 'western province' or 'west country' (서도). Along these lines, our first lesson introduces some basic vocabulary associated with the region's historic origins and its names throughout the ages.

Lesson 1 – Choson, Koguryo, Koryo, and more Choson

Morning Calm and the Taedong

Traditionally Korea is known as the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’, a fitting moniker with origins in the name of the first Korean state, Choson (조선).

Choson was centered on the Taedong River (대동강) at today’s Pyongyang (평양). The kingdom is said to have been founded by the semi-mythical founder king, Tangun (단군), born at volcanic Mt. Paekdu (백두산) from the holy union of the son of a sky deity and a she-bear.

Like many things, Choson has more than one foundation story. Another revolves around a scholarly leader named Kija (기자) who is said to have come from China. In days of yore the old centre of Pyongyang was known was 'Kija’s City'. Today the Tangun story is preferred canon in both Koreas. The tombs of Tangun and Kija are both located in the Pyongyang area.

For clarity's take, this original Choson is called Old Choson (고조선) as the name has continued to serve as a name for Korea on down through the ages. Most notably Choson was the name of the long-lived 'last Korean feudal state', the Ri Dynasty (리조), which lasted from 1392-1910 and today puts the ‘Korea’ in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as we will see in the next lesson. For now, we’ll stick to the past.

If Choson is the Korean name for Korea, where then does the name ‘Korea’ come from?

Korea is a derivative of the word Koryo (고려) as in the Koryo Dynasty, a medieval kingdom which ruled Korea for 475 years (918-1392) and preceded the above-mentioned Ri Dynasty. Medieval European scholars, perhaps in documents and/or various intermediaries, slapped on a Latin ending to make Koryo an easily declinable first-declension noun: Korea, Koreae, et cetera, et cetera.

Today you’ll find the word Koryo used throughout Korea: Air Koryo (고려항공) is the national airlines, the Koryo Hotel (고려호텔) is one of Pyongyang’s most iconic hotels, and, of course, Koryo Tours (영국고려행사), the longest-running foreign tour operator in the DPRK, experts in travel since 1993. Traditional Korean medicine is known as 'Koryo medicine' (고려의학) in the DPRK.

The Latinate transformation of Koryo is fitting in that the word itself is a contraction of Koguryo (고구려), a kingdom which ruled over much of today’s DPRK and northeast China during the (Korean) 'Three Kingdoms Era'. This era lasted roughly from the first or second century BC until 668 AD . The other two primary kingdoms on the peninsula during this time were Silla (신라) in the southeast and Paekche (백제) in the southwest.

Ancient regional distinctions still manifest themselves in modern day Korea. For instance, North Koreans generally considers Koguryo as the prime cultural contributor to subsequent Korean culture, while until relatively recently South Koreans might put more emphasis on the contributions of Slla. Regional rivalries between the former lands of Silla and Paekche are reflected in South Korean elections, although later historic reasons also account for this. This author once visited a rustic river valley in southern Korean said to be the traditional boundary between Paekche and Silla. It was said that even today (or perhaps until a decade or so ago), people from villages on opposite sides of the river do not intermarry.

Historians in North Korea consider the Koryo as the first Korean dynasty to unite the Korea, while those in South Korea have (again until relatively recently) considered the Later (or Unified) Silla as the first. One could argue both are correct, depending on semantics, that is: does unification mean the uniting all Korean polities on the peninsula or does it mean unifying all lands that subsequently were incorporated into Korea? We'll stay out of it, but if you are of the latter disposition, the Korean Peninsula (조선반도) is the land set south of the Amnok ( 압록강), known to us as the Yalu River, and the Tumen River (두문강) and between the East, West, and South Seas (조선동해, 서해, 남해), also known as the Sea of Japan, Yellow Sea, and Gulf of Bohai, respectively.

In the next lesson, we will look at some vocabulary associated with the modern North Korean state.

'Northern Exposures' is a primer to the language of today’s DPRK and northern Korea. It aims to introduce useful vocabulary, phrases, and grammar relevant to the region and related context to students of the Korean language. It assumes basic knowledge of Korean script.

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