No need to be polite: ‘banmal’ in North Korean society

Monday 19th December, 2016

In Korean language and society, honourifics are of utmost importance. The polite form (‘jondaetmal’) is used for those who demand or deserve respect. In South Korea, this often means somebody who is older. In North Korea, however, police officers use ‘banmal’ (informal language) no matter who they’re speaking to. 

Police on the streets of Pyongyang / Wikimedia Commons.

Police on the streets of Pyongyang / Wikimedia Commons.

South Korean police are required ‘to speak kindly at all times to the best of their ability, and to be friendly and respectful to the people’, as specified by Article 4, Section 1 of the Police Code of Conduct. Though, this clause does not mean that police officers are looked down upon in South Korea – ordinary citizens are also expected to be equally courteous.

The situation in North Korea regarding courtesy and respect differs dramatically. Those who are higher-ranked seem to have an implied right to speak casually, and often rudely, to others. Oh Ji-hyun, who escaped North Korea in 2015, stated that, “North Korean police officers and other officials never speak in polite form. They believe that ordinary citizens are of low status. They will even speak informally to the elderly. Age doesn’t mean a thing there.”

Oh continued, “In North Korea, the words most commonly heard among police officers are the following commands, ‘come!’ and ‘go!’ When I was living in North Korea, a police officer much younger than I summoned me and demanded that I stamp out my cigarette. There wasn’t much that I could do besides obey. I already knew that it was a bad idea to get on the wrong side of a police officer.”

Lee Min-hyuk used to be a driver in North Korea. He said, “There were police officers at checkpoints that used to ask for our travel permits. I don’t ever remember them speaking in the polite form, only: ‘Give me your permit! Give me your licence!’ They only ever spoke informally or impolitely.”

Lee compared these experiences with his run-ins with the police in South Korea: “When I received my South Korean driver’s licence, I was pulled over by police for a random breath test. I recoiled and gave my licence as asked, feeling afraid. The South Korean police saluted me and said, ‘We will begin a random breath test for alcohol’ and I hurriedly saluted back, to which the police officer smiled. I wondered what I did wrong. When the police officer bowed and said goodbye, I thought of the police officers back in my hometown and was alarmed at the difference,” he said.

Another defector, Kim Byung-gi, wrote in his memoir The Police and I:

“Early one morning, someone knocked loudly at the door. ‘Who is it?’ I asked as I opened, and a spiteful-looking police officer stood before me. ‘What seems to be the problem?’ I asked, and he replied, ‘You’re coming to the police office!’ His words were contemptuous as well as impolite. ’What is the matter, at this early hour?’ I asked, and the young police officer threatened, ‘Something is the matter, so stop whining and come out before I drag you.’ His face twisted into a cold smile. ‘How old are you?’ I asked. ‘Why do you ask?’ the police officer retorted. ‘Do you think lowly of me because I look young?’”

For Koreans, whether one speaks or is spoken to in the polite form is very important. It may show that one is of more important stature than the other, but it is also a mark of respect towards people generally. However, in the case of North Korea, an ordinary citizen would never be spoken to politely by a North Korean police officer. To emphasise this, Choi Ju-hwan, who defected in 2014, said that, “The casual form is spoken when in dialogue with someone who is believed to be below them. It is clear that this is exactly how the North Korean police feels about the people they are supposed to be protecting.”


Reporting by Shin, Junsik.

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