Korean Alphabet As A Tool In Awakening The Korean National Identity
Tracing the emergence of Korean nationalism and the formation of national identity is integral to understanding the complexities of modern-day politics on the Korean peninsula. A pivotal contributor to the growth and formation of nationalism and national identity was the adoption of the simple Korean-specific alphabet, han’gul. For centuries, Korea lived “in the shadow of China” (Park 1989, 114). This meant, among other things, adapting the Chinese script to a language for which it was not designed. In the 15th century, King Sejong developed a simple phonological script specifically for the Korean language with the goal of using literacy to break down traditional class and gender barriers. The upper classes hated it. To them, it posed a threat to social order and flaunted a blatant disrespect to China’s power. Sejong’s script, later termed ‘han’gul’, soon fell into obscurity, surviving only among lower classes and women. In the 1800s, when China’s influence started waning, early anti-foreigner movements in Korea revived Sejong’s script and used it as a tool to dismantle Korea’s unjust social structure. This would have a profound effect on the Korean psyche as it became foundational in developing Korea’s national identity and instrumental in proliferating Korean nationalism. Three key time periods best highlight the alphabet’s integral role. The period following the Kabo reforms saw han’gul becoming a symbol of Korean independence that invited lower classes to engage in political matters. However this led to the spread of anti-foreigner messaging and nationalism. During Japanese colonisation, assimilation policies turned linguists and scholars into nationalists who would champion han’gul as Korea’s last bastion of hope in saving their culture and identity. Lastly, North Korea’s formative years saw top-down anti-foreigner language reform and literacy drives that aimed to deepen citizens’ devotion to the new nation-state and spread ideological messaging.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the traditional East Asian world order – which upheld China as its North Star – began to collapse. Japan and other foreign powers jostled to fill this void and compelled Korea to loosen its long-held tight border controls, sign treaties, and normalise diplomatic relations. Like a teenager coming of age, when the dominant authority figure ceases to maintain the influence it once held, the individual begins to form their own identity. Similarly, as China’s influence retreated and the sudden influx of new foreign entities started interfering in the region, the Korean people took the opportunity to construct a united national identity by contrasting themselves against other nations. Early anti-foreigner movements quickly seized on han’gul as proof that Korea was not just some appendage of China, but was a land with notable distinguishing differences that united its people as one (Shin 2006, 28). The Kabo reforms (1894-6) extended this idea and its legislations would not just mark Korea as a sovereign state, but would lay the foundations for a national identity. Beyond declaring sovereignty, the Kabo reforms called for the use of han’gul in all official documents. In dictating the use of han’gul in this way, the Kabo reforms invited all Koreans to engage in its national affairs and defined Korea under the banner of its unique, custom-made alphabet.
Declaring han’gul official and lauding it as “a symbol of national independence” (37) helped increase usage and removed much of the stigma attached to the script – except among conservative elites who still held that the Chinese script (hanja) was the only true written expression of the Korean language. Breaking down this stigma opened the doors to a burgeoning publishing and media industry. Between 1894-5, several newspapers launched printed in mixed han’gul and hanja, and in 1896, Tongnip Shinmun became the first privately-owned commercial newspaper published in han’gul. At the helm of Tongnip Shinmun was Independence Club founder, Sŏ Chaep’il, an intellectual who had been in exile in the United States following his involvement in the Gapsin Coup. The Club’s members of progressive intellectuals believed that “the way to national strength lay in manipulating national symbols to encourage patriotic public support for the government” (Robinson 1988, 25). With that in mind, Sŏ’s goal in launching the paper was to “encourage patriotism and political participation” (25). According to Youm (1992, 146), “the paper was devoted primarily to advocating exclusion of foreign dependence, protection of national sovereignty, elimination of class distinction, and expansion of civil rights,” and in using han’gul, Sŏ had the opportunity to reach a newly literate and engaged audience. As the conservative Korean elite continued to deride han’gul, those literate in just han’gul could only access news, current affairs, and opinions in a script they could read. As this was exclusively anti-foreigner media, the lower-class masses only had access to one viewpoint. Although many other papers published during this period, they all followed the mission that Tongnip Shinmun laid out in seeking to preserve national sovereignty that was being threatened from intense outside powers (147). So, while the masses continued to consume media portraying anti-foreigner and nationalist content, the elitists’ objections to han’gul provided no opportunity for a counterpoint to reach anyone illiterate to hanja. The outcome of this imbalance arguably led to the rise and ferocity of Korean nationalism.
The elitist derision of han’gul dramatically shifted a few decades later when the fight for Korean identity took on a new enemy – the Japanese. Despite Korean national identity being in its infancy at the time of Japanese colonisation, increasingly draconian assimilation policies pushed the Korean people to fiercely protect this identity as their last hope of cultural survival. With a new common foreign aggressor, a Korean community could flourish under race-based membership, as opposed to class.
Japan’s assimilation policies applied to all public and private domains, and by 1936, the last independent newspapers in Korea had been suppressed or shut down and han’gul publications no longer existed. In response to these policies, Korean nationalists “called for the preservation of the language as necessary to keep national spirit and consciousness alive” (Shin 2006, 51). In this way, han’gul became “a tool of resistance against forced assimilation” (Hur 2018, 718), and researching and developing the Korean language “was a demonstration of resistance, independence, and autonomy” (718-9). Under such harsh conditions, the study of Korean linguistics became synonymous with nationalism and rebellion. What was a script that scholars and academia had mocked and derided only decades earlier, had become a powerful weapon in the fight against the oppression of Korean people.
In 1921, during a period of more relaxed colonial policy, scholars established the Korean Language Society which, among other projects, were creating a Korean language dictionary. However, in the late 1930s during a crackdown on Korean language activities, Japanese police arrested and tortured a Society committee member into making false confessions regarding the purpose of the Society. Many more committee members were subsequently arrested and tortured. The Japanese government then “framed the Society’s actions to promote and develop han’gul as an illegal act” (732) as it challenged Japan’s ‘Korea and Japan are one’ policy. Although the Japanese destroyed much of the scholars’ work, it was the efforts of nationalist linguists in developing the Korean script as a symbol of national identity under such oppressive conditions that demonstrates how “han’gul was used to resist forced assimilation” (737) and unite the Korean community.
Such harsh policies backfired on the Japanese leadership as it only intensified the hostility Koreans held toward its colonial rulers and struck grave fear into the Korean people that their language was facing extinction (Park 1989, 115). Much in the way that the post-Kabo reforms period allowed han’gul to lay the groundwork for a national identity to formulate and nationalism to flourish, when the symbol of that identity was threatened with extinction, it caused people to fight even harder to keep it alive.
Having established the foundations of nationalism and national identity in the post-Kabo reform years and its extreme strength-test during Japanese colonisation, Korea’s division was a time to put it into practice. Up until this point, Korea’s national identity had developed only in opposition to other foreign entities – they defined themselves as not Chinese and not Japanese, so now faced with a new state, a new identity needed to arise. Although propped up by foreign powers, the newly-formed states on both sides of the border needed to rally its citizens and quickly forge strong support to maintain internal power.
One particularly effective method of gaining community support and loyalty to the state is by establishing a standardised national language. Standardising a national language can be “a powerful tool for building a sense of common identity for the citizens of a potential nation-state” (Makihara 2010, 38). This is because it “facilitates the centralization of national media, school curricula, and governmental bureaucracy. The national government can more effectively spread nation-building messages through the medium of a single standardized language variety” (37). This is exactly what the newly-created government of North Korea set about doing by implementing policies that would dramatically increase literacy and strip foreign influence from its language.
In 1947-8, the North Korean government organised a swift yet thorough literacy drive. With a high rate of illiteracy following Japanese colonial assimilation policies, illiteracy seriously threatened the advancement of a North Korean state. The government aimed to rectify this through a series of nationwide mandatory literacy programs. In addition to literacy education, the government used this top-down language reform as a vehicle for implementing Party ideology, to shape the thinking and behaviour of its people, and as a representation of the will of the Party passed on to the masses (Kaplan and Baldauf 2003, 38). Like the early newspaper publishers who adopted han’gul and spread one-sided media to the newly engaged masses, these language programs allowed the proliferation of a single perspective. Without a counterpoint or access to competing ideas, unopposed ideology prevails. In less than four years, the North Korean government declared complete success, reporting 100 percent literacy (38-39). It’s impossible to know if the government could have achieved such a feat if not for the simplicity of a script that was designed to be learnt in a morning. However, han’gul clearly facilitated the rapid rise in literacy which, in turn, quickly spread nationalistic ideology throughout the country in the lead-up to the Korean War.
The next stage of language reform was to eliminate all Chinese characters from use and to replace all foreign words with newly-created Korean ones (Kim 2017, 24). The Korean and Chinese languages are deeply connected. Despite hailing from different language families, Korean borrows close to 50 percent of its vocabulary from Chinese. However, this did not deter the North Korean government from enacting policies that would attempt to purge all foriegn influence from the Korean language. The process of manipulating the language to meet the state’s dogmatic needs began in conjunction with the literacy drive in 1947 and was achieved through the promotion of han’gul-only newspapers, magazines, and school textbooks. By 1949, the government completely banned the use of Chinese characters, with some limited exceptions (Kaplan and Baldauf 2003, 39). ‘Purifying’ the language in this manner was a symbolic and concrete way for North Koreans to cleanse themselves of their colonial oppressors (Kim 2017, 8). It is common for former colonies to link language ideology with national identity as it asserts the newly-formed state’s independence from its former colonial power (Sebba 2012, 3). Although North Korea could not have existed without foreign intervention, language purification was a clear indicator that Koreans were no longer beholden to any other foreign entity – this was freedom from oppression, colonisation, and living in China’s shadow, and it finally put Korean interests ahead of anything–or anyone–else. These were the early building blocks towards shaping a North Korean national identity, an extension of the Korean national identity of the past, but one that had escaped the shackles of foreign interference and demonstrated what nationalism (under the auspices of Communism) could achieve. With a foundation in extreme nationalism, once again, the simple Korean-made alphabet became the state’s prime example of Korean exceptionalism, ushering in a new brand of nationalism and national identity for the newly-formed independent nation-state.
There is a “crucial relationship between writing and identity… In the special case of Korean, the question of how to write the language has been an indispensable ingredient in the evolution of a national culture and in the self-awareness of the Korean people” (Haarmann 1993, 144). From the late 1800s to the separation of the peninsula, han’gul has been instrumental in forming the Korean national identity and in establishing and spreading nationalism. While a variety of factors were involved in the process, at almost every turn, the easy-to-master Korean alphabet was at the core of them all. Whether being used as a symbol that proves Korea’s difference from its neighbours, as a system for delivering one-sided ideological messages, as a unifying rally cry that ignites all Korean people, or manipulated under a regime’s attempts to practice what they preach, han’gul carried it all. Would the Korean peninsula be what it is today if han’gul never made its comeback when it did? It’s hard to say. However it’s clear that a Korea under the hanja script would be a very different place.
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