Univoca app start page. (Photo: Jason Strother)

Univoca app start page. (Photo: Jason Strother)

North Korea is sometimes seen as a country that’s trapped in a Stalinist time warp.  And because it’s so isolated, some South Koreans think that even the way people there speak Korean is stuck in the past too.

One thing is clear, for the nearly 28-thousand North Korean escapees who now live below the border, overcoming linguistic differences is one of their biggest challenges in resettling in the South.

But some researchers are trying new ways to help close that language divide.

The North Korean accent is sometimes mocked on South Korean comedy programs- it sounds quaint or old fashioned to some people here. 

But Lee Song-ju says when he speaks on the phone, no one can tell he’s a North Korean defector anymore.

The 28-year old says when he arrived in South Korea back in 2002, his accent embarrassed him. 

“I had a very strong North Korean accent.  People just kept asking me about my hometown, my background. So whenever I was asked by them I had to (say) lie, cause I don’t want to share my story.  People know North Korea is a very poor country,” he said.

He says South Koreans would’ve looked down on him and he wouldn’t have made any friends. So he picked up the local accent pretty fast.

Accent assimilation is one way defectors try to fit in here, says Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at the refugee support group Liberty in North Korea, LINK.

But he says the biggest linguistic challenge for newly arrived defectors is learning all the new words that South Korea has acquired during the past 7 decades since the peninsula was split.

“There’s been a lot of linguistic change particularly in the South with the influence of globalization and with the English language in particular. So they arrive here often, are surprised with the amount of borrowed words  that they are unfamiliar with as soon as they go into a coffee shop for instance,” he said. 

For North Korean defectors struggling with South Korea-only words and expressions, a new smartphone app could help bridge the language gap.

It’s called Univoca, short for unification vocabulary.  It allows a user to type in or snap a photo of an unknown word and it gives a North Korean translation.  There’s also a section that gives practical language advice, like how to order a pizza and there’s a video explaining some dating terminology.

One of the app’s developers, Jang Jong-chul of the advertising firm Cheil Worldwide, explains how they decided on the vocabulary. He flips through a book with highlighted words on some pages

“We first showed this typical South Korean grammar textbook to a class of teenage defectors who picked out the unfamiliar words.  We also consulted older North Korean to help with translations.  So far they’ve added about 3,600 words to the app’s database,” he said.

Jang adds before he started working on the app, he never realized how limited North Korean vocabulary is or how some expressions now out of style in the South are still used in the North.

I want to get a North Korean’s opinion about this translation app, so I ask Lee Song-ju to install it on his phone. We take a walk around a shopping plaza below the Se Ah Tow-wa, the Koreanized way of saying tower, which seems like a good word to start with.

“So now I’m typing it in, in the app. Let’s see tower.  There’s no translation for tower,” he said.

We pass an ice cream shop. He types ice-cream and gets a translation.

“They said aureum-bolsungi in North Korean, but we don’t use this word when I was in North Korea. We just say ice cream or ice kay-ke,” he said.

One more try- we find a Dunkin Donuts.

“This is correct. In North Korean it is Karakji-bang! Ring bread, but we say Karakji-bang for doughnuts.”

So based on this quick test, the app’s vocab list seems somewhat hit or miss.

Maybe its developers could get some help from Han Yong-woon. He’s a South Korean lexicographer who for the past several years has worked with North Korean counterparts to assemble the first unified Korean dictionary. And from what he’s learned, he says he doesn’t believe that the North Korean language is stuck n the past.

“All languages are living and growing, even North Korean. Over the years they’ve borrowed foreign words too, but mainly from Russian and Chinese,” he said. 

Political tensions have gotten in the way of completing the joint dictionary. But Han hopes the project will be wrapped up in a few more years.

As for the Univoca North Korean language app, its open source so users can add new words as they come across them. 

Defector Lee Song-ju says he was skeptical at first, but the app won him over.

“This is really nice, I mean, pretty good, yeah. It’s well designed. There are not many functions, but all are really useful for North Korean escapees who just arrived here,” he said. 

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