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The Korean Language: A Fight for Survival

All 21st-century economists include South Korea as one of the Four Asian Tigers among Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan for undergoing and maintaining rapid economic growth in the 1960s. Today, these nations serve as models for other developing nations in Southeast Asia that are nicknamed 'Tiger Cubs'. In this context, "Singapore and Hong Kong are seen as leading foreign financial hubs, while Taiwan and South Korea are pioneers in the manufacture of electronic components and computers" (CFI Education Inc., n.d., para. 2). Violent junctures in history drastically transform cultures, values, principles, and thus, the language of a region. Japanese occupation, which lasted from 1910 to 1945, made numerous attempts to eradicate the Korean national identity and its language. Yet, the Korean people and their language persevered through egregious circumstances which deserve admiration. This article will begin by addressing how the Japanese empire seized control of the peninsula, exploring then the phases of its colonization of the region that suppressed Korean national identity and the valiant efforts to save the language despite extreme censorship.

Figure 1: Invasion and battle of the palace in the dynasty's capital. - News from Korea- an account of a skirmish -involving Minister Ōtori. Anonymous. 1894.

Early Japanese imperialism began as early as the end of the 1800s, with ambitions to change regional power structures and become East Asia's central sphere of influence. Toward the end of the 19th century, Qing China and Japan began vying for the domination of Korea. Kyu Hyun Kim (2012), an Associate Professor of History in East Asian Studies at The University of California, explains how the Japanese framed other nations in the East Asian area in their propaganda to justify their superiority by stating, “[the] Japanese were seeing themselves as a representative force of ‘civilization’ or ‘the modern’ against the ‘backward’ or ‘barbaric’ Chinese/Koreans” (p. 10). The exaggerated propaganda fueled the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) with China, which ended in a peace treaty that gave Japan significant advantages regarding tax exemptions, land ceded from China, and numerous trade advantages, though obliged Japan to recognize Korea as an independent nation (Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d.). Afterward, Japan continued to set its sights on Korea and Manchuria, directly challenging Russia, which held influence over the area.

Figure 2: Map of Japan's acquired territories. - Japanese expansion in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. N.d..

The Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902 signaled Great Britain's preference for Japan's dominance over Korea instead of China and Russia, “The British [government] was of the opinion that Japan was the best candidate to reconstitute Korea for the benefit of the imperial powers” (Kim, 2012, p. 9). In this complex geopolitical situation, Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War from 1904 to 1905 granted Japan access to Korea and Manchuria and as a result, the power scale was tipped in Japan’s favor (Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d.). Finally, After invading Korea in 1910, the Japanese empire’s expansionist strategies produced a myriad of urban, economic, and cultural reform policies in Korea.

While it modernized the country, it also exploited the people and generated harsh apartheid. The initial definition of apartheid in Merriam-Webster Dictionary exemplifies apartheid as extreme racial segregation, specifically between nonwhites and Africans in South Africa (apartheid, n.d.). However, upon further inspection, a note section underneath the example of South Africa includes a wider definition, adding “restrictions [such] as to where people of certain races…could live or own land, what jobs they could hold, and who could and couldn't participate in government” (apartheid, n.d., Note section). This broader definition fully applies to the circumstances that took place in Korea under Japanese authority. In fact, although the early years of Japanese occupation allowed for restricted forms of Korean expression, the Japanese empire dictated every facet of life and economic opportunity. Tristan R. Grunow (2020), an Associate Research Scholar in the Council on East Asian Studies, highlights Japan’s justification tactics to control Korea,

In Seoul, Japanese ‘enlightened exploitation’ took the form of street improvement programs designed to transform the southern half of the city into settler colonial space even before the beginning of colonial rule (Re-making Koreans as Out of Place through Street Improvements section, para. 2).

As aftermentioned, Japan exaggerated the primitiveness of Korea’s landscape and destroyed historical sites to create factories, roads, and telecommunications as forced industrialization policies. As far as the positive sides of its occupation, Japan only improved certain conditions in Korea regarding modernization to turn the land into an industrial powerhouse to export goods to Japan and develop weapons for further expansion efforts.

Figure 3: The Korean people declaring their declaration of independence. - The March 1st Independence Movement. Suh, Se-ok. 1986.

Korean rebels made the language as unwavering as their spirit. From the onset of Japanese occupation, Koreans firmly rejected Japanese hegemony, promoting national identity and heritage through the foundation of 'The Korean Language Society' (Hangeul Hakhoe) on August 31st, 1908, established by linguist Ju Si-gyeong. The foundation consisted of over 300 academics and ordinary people that resumed in 1921 under the new name 'Society for the Study of the Korean Language' (Joseoneo Yeonguhoe) after a six-year hiatus following the death of Ju Si-gyeong (Lopez Velazquez, 2021). This organization aimed to preserve the Korean language, and among its efforts also included the construction of the first Great Korean Dictionary in Hangul for Hangul (Hunminjeongeum). It is important to state that before this event, only dictionaries for translation purposes such as Korean-French, Korean-English, and Korean-Japanese existed. While, apart from the mere function of translation, this dictionary served to educate Koreans in their language. Most notably,

its compilation began in 1929, with the aim of establishing a policy that integrated language and writing, involving people of all ranks and classes from Seoul and other regions (Lopez Velazquez, 2021, para. 2).

This rebellious action is regarded as particularly astonishing considering the dangerous timing. The Japanese empire launched harsh crackdowns and suppression of the Korean language only a couple of years following the act of preserving Korean national identity. In this way, by the late 1930s, the Japanese suspended any work operating from the committee and arrested directors. Bethany Antos (2020), an archivist at the Rockefeller Archive Center, wrote: “they [Korean Language Society] sought to produce a dictionary which would reflect clear, standardized spelling and syntax” despite the dangerous circumstances (Anti-Hangul Repression section, para. 1). Nevertheless, the sacrifice and thirst for independence outweighed the fear of imprisonment, and nothing unifies people regardless of class status more than a universal language.

Figure 4: Directors and the members of the dictionary staff, Korean language research society, Seoul, Korea. Anonymous. 1949.

Apartheid policies in the 1930s turned to ethnocide, marking the period as the most traumatic phase of Japanese colonization. Some may describe this period of Japanese occupation as an ethnic cleansing, defined by the United Nations as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas” (Definition section, para. 1). While violence, censorship, and imprisonment occurred, the Japanese Empire did not want to eradicate the Korean people. Ethnocide, according to the more appropriate term, is “the destruction of culture while keeping the people” (American Bar Association, para. 1). Japan’s overwhelming authority and hegemony of the peninsula made it possible to instate these policies to suppress Korean national identity in obscurity. Andrei Lankov (2011), an Asian scholar and specialist in Korean studies, explains why the Japanese empire believed they could make Koreans Japanese, “Korea and Japan share a similar cultural heritage…as well as basic religious beliefs (a mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, and local cults)” (para. 6). Therefore, it was believed that these similarities would make complete assimilation successful, contrasting Western imperialism. In the strategies employed by the Japanese government to accomplish so, major policies included the erasure of the Korean language and other forced assimilation efforts.

Alexander Chee (2020), a Korean-American author, wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine and was inspired by his family history to write about forced assimilation mandates during the occupation. These measures included adapting Korean education to focusing on the Japanese language and culture. In addition to that, "hundreds of thousands of Koreans had been forced to fight in the Japanese Army, work in their factories, or in the case of the Korean so-called comfort women, forced into sexual slavery" (para.7). As previously highlighted, the requirement for the Korean people to change their names not only bolstered the narrative of Japanese superiority but also produced deep insult and shame. Names carried great significance in Korean culture and in this regard, Chee explains further, "your Korean name connects you to your ancestors, changing that name meant losing them, too. Many Koreans took their lives rather than change their names" (2020, para. 7). The paramount shift in the empire's previous modus operandi that strictly prohibited racial equality began demanding that the Korean people become indistinguishable from Japanese culture and identity. Even so, regardless of whether the assimilation tactics succeeded, the Korean people would still always exist as the 'Other'.

To emphasize the significance of the Korean language further, King Sejong, creator of Hangeul, used the sophisticated Korean writing system to unite people. Both nobility (yangban) and the poor under Joseon Dynasty could access literacy. This strong nationalist tie through language always threatened imperialist ventures of complete control over Korea and the assimilation of its people. Min Ju Lee (2006), a Ph.D. student in Communications at Seoul National University at the time of publishing their article, writes, “Imperial Japan ceased most publications and set the systematic device of pre-and post-censorship for repressing the arguments of the Korean press” (p. 84). The Government-general of Korea released its newspaper, Maeil Sinbo, under the gaze of the Japanese authority, resulting in a biased press and symbolizing Japan’s attempts to control Korean cultural discourse. At the time, plenty of private newspapers published their critiques over freedom of the press, but Mail Sinbo argued that “the Korean press could not have freedom of the press because it had no capability of ‘self-government” (Lee, 2006, p. 90). This propaganda reinforced the ‘enlightened exploitation' tactic, claiming that Korea did not deserve freedom due to incompetence.

Japanese control over Korea continued until the defeat of the Axis Powers in World War II, retreating from Korea (Britannica). Though the Korean peninsula experienced further in-fighting between the conflicting ideologies of North and South Korea during the Korean War, the survival and tenacity of the Korean language survived each turmoil and war fought on the land.

Figure 5: Movie poster of a film inspired by the first Korean dictionary manuscript. - MAL·MO·E: The secret mission (2019). Eom, Yu-nal. 2019.

Today, South Korean people take great pride in their survival as a nation, and memories of colonization still run deep in the minds of all Korean people even among generations who never experienced colonization or the Korean War. Consequently, the enriching history of their language also remains a focal point of celebration with national holidays, attractions, pop culture, and media dedicated to its celebration. They coined the publishing of the Great Dictionary on October 9, 1957, as a national holiday named Hangeul Day. The finished dictionary includes “164,125 lexical entries, dialects, words outdated and technical terms, as well as a love for the Korean language and a desire for national independence” (Lopez Velazquez, 2021, Activities after the liberation of Korea section, para. 2). Historic sites and museums such as The National Hangeul Museum, King Sejong the Great Memorial Museum, and the Hangeul Gaon-Gil (Hangul Center Street) commemorate Hangul and provide wonderful information to Koreans and tourists alike (Seoul City Hall, 2020). Moreover, the explosion of South Korean culture (Hallyu Wave) exposed the language worldwide through film and music. More people than ever before study the language and experience its linguistic genius. By doing so, everything came full circle, as yet again, this seemingly small peninsula (now smaller due to a divided 38th parallel) displays strength and colorful culture that shines a light ten times its size.


Antos, B. (2021). Saving a language: the Korean dictionary comes to life against tough odds. Retrieved from

CFI Education Inc. (n.d.). Four Asian tigers. Retrieved from

Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). Japan - The emergence of imperial Japan. Retrieved from

Grunow, T. R. (2020). Cultivating settler colonial space in Korea: public works and the urban environment under Japanese rule. Retrieved from

Kim, K. (2012). The Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895): Japanese national integration and construction of the Korean “other.” International Journal of Korean History, 17(1), 1–27.

Lankov, A. (2011). (552) Japanese policy of assimilation. Retrieved from

Lee, M. (2006). The circumstances of the Korean press under Japanese ruling and the formation of discourse on freedom of the press in the 1920s, Journal of Communication Research, 43(1). 79–98. Retrieved from

Lopez Velazquez, L. (2021). Hangeul Hakhoe: the society that protected Hangeul and preserved Korean identity. Retrieved from

Merriam Webster. (n.d.). Apartheid. Retrieved from

Seoul City Hall. (2020). Let’s celebrate the great value of Hangeul on Hangeul day. Retrieved from

United Nations. (n.d.). United nations office on genocide prevention and the responsibility to protect. Retrieved from

Visual References

Figure 1: Anonymous. (1894). News from Korea- an account of a skirmish -involving Minister Ōtori [Image]. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). Japanese expansion in the late 19th and 20th centuries [Map]. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: Suh Se-ok. (1986). The march 1st independence movement [Ink and color on mulberry paper]. Retrieved from:

Figure 4: Anonymous. (1949). Directors and the members of the dictionary staff, Korean language research society, Seoul, Korea [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Figure 5: Eom Yu-nal (2019). MAL·MO·E: The secret mission (2019), inspired by Hangeul Hakhoe [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Author Photo

Leah Dietle

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