Hangeul Day, in North Korea

Monday 10th October, 2016

The Day of the Korean Alphabet is known in North Korea also. Refugees share their experiences.

Hangeul Day, named after the Korean alphabet, celebrates the formal proclamation of the Korean script as published in the manuscript Hunminjeongeum, by the Joseon King Sejong the Great (1397-1450). As such, in South Korea, citizens enjoy the 9th of October of every year as a national holiday.

Of course, North Korea uses the same alphabet, although it is known not as Hangeul, but as Joseon-geul. In South Korea, King Sejong the Great is elevated to an almost god-like status, but in North Korea, such great respect can only be reserved for the Kim family. On Joseon-geul day, an acknowledgment is made that ‘Joseon-geul was created for the people’, but by exactly whom remains deliberately unclear. The two countries, whilst using the same script, have contrasting approaches to its creator.

The majority of North Korean refugees now living in South Korea could not recall ever learning about the day of the Korean Alphabet, let alone celebrating it. They did, however, learn briefly about King Sejong the Great during high school in Korean history classes, they said.

Kim Ok-ran lived in Pyongsong before escaping North Korea in 2012. She said, “North Korean citizens don’t know about the origins of the words that they write or speak. But when you think about it, North Korean citizens don’t know a lot about history at all. I do remember that the government taught us that in South Korea, our language and heritage were being eroded. But no, even as we spoke, we did not know – could not know – the origins of Joseon-geul or Hangeul, or who its creator was.”

Whilst North Korea is littered with great bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, South Korea’s most iconic statue is of King Sejong the Great himself, situated in Gwanghwamun Plaza in the heart of Seoul. The statue was erected on Hangeul Day in 2009. Kim initially expressed shock upon seeing the statue: “I realised that I knew so little about our history, and looking back on my previous life in North Korea, I felt a sense of emptiness. Our history was being celebrated, not eroded in South Korea – it was being eroded in the North.”

She concluded, “The North Korean people will remain slaves of the government’s lies, but refugees like me have come to South Korea to learn the truth. It feels like a breath of fresh air.”

 

Reporting by Park, Ju-hee.

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