The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, captivated audiences from all over the world. Millions watched as athletes shattered records, fought for gold, and achieved the impossible. From US skater Mirai Nagasu’s historic triple axel to the re-ignited Russian doping scandal, the Olympics marked many key milestones in the athletic world. The most remarkable moment of the Olympics, however, happened before the athletic contests had begun, when North and South Koreans marched together at the Opening Ceremony.

The Korean flag billowed in the open air of the stadium, its meaning weighing heavily on the athletes who still waved it with pride. The flag bearers, Won Yun-jong of South Korea and Hwang Chung-gum of North Korea, led their respective delegations. The athletes marched behind the image of a united Korea, a bright blue emblem on the white flag that brought them together. As the athletes made their way through the stadium, their leaders shook hands. The opening ceremony symbolized political aspirations that had begun to seem impossible. The Games, however, would reveal the many struggles that stood in the way of that goal.

In January, North and South Korea announced the merging of their women’s hockey teams into a single Korean team. With less than a month to prepare for the Olympics, both teams struggled to navigate the strategic barriers that came with competing together. The biggest obstacle to unifying the hockey teams was the linguistic barrier between them. Despite, the optimism of the players and the unwavering support of the South Korean audience, the inability to communicate cost the Korean hockey team Olympic success.

Decades of complete separation between North and South Korea have manifested themselves in drastic differences between the Korean dialects of the two countries. It seems, however, that both nations may be beginning to consider moving towards reunification. South Korea, especially, has a stake in pursuing a united Korea, as the North poses a significant military threat to them. But if the linguistic barrier cost the Korean women’s hockey team a medal, is reintegrating North Koreans into South Korean society at all feasible?

A Background of Mounting Tensions

The athletic fanfare couldn’t shroud the brewing tensions between the United States, North Korea, and South Korea. Military stalemate between North and South Korea defined the relations between the two countries for decades. In recent years, however, North Korea has begun to pose a threat to the South with its militarization campaign and acquisition of nuclear weapons. Throughout 2017, tensions between the United States and North Korea escalated, putting South Korea in a precarious position between the two military powers. The numerous threats rallied between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have not been realized, but the impending threat of conflict certainly loomed over Pyeongchang amidst preparations for the games.

In this geopolitical climate, North and South Korea surprised the watching world with their decision to march and compete under a single Korean flag at the Olympic Games. The implications of this decision were not lost on the international community. Although this move was likely driven by South Korean fears of military conflict, it may have begun a political thaw between the two nations and opened up an opportunity to begin much-needed negotiations. To many, a path to reunification is far more preferable than the breakout of another war that would devastate the Korean peninsula.

History of Separation

The linguistic differences between North and South Korea are a remarkable, yet often overlooked, product of the physical and political barrier between the two nations. In 1988, linguist Louis-Jean Calvet wrote, “the history of languages constitutes the linguistic aspect of the history of societies.” The divergence of the Korean language across the 38th parallel epitomizes the isolation of two societies that had once shared everything.

The division of North and South Korea is relatively recent. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union laid claim to the region of Korea that lay above the 38th parallel North, which roughly marks the modern border between the two countries. Due to the onset of the Cold War, the United States accordingly retaliated by claiming the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. Each superpower propped up a new government in one half of Korea: Syngman Rhee’s anti-communist dictatorship in South Korea and Kim Il-sung’s rule in the North.

In June 1950, 75,000 North Korean soldiers invaded the South, beginning a brutal proxy war that has scarred the Peninsula. The United States and the Soviet Union continued to support each nation throughout the Cold War, widening the cultural and economic divide between North and South Korea and exacerbating pre-existing political tensions. The physical manifestation of this divide is the 2-mile wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) that spans the border.

A Language Divided

As South Korea developed from a poor peripheral state into a capitalist superpower, its language evolved with it. The United States played a major role in this rapid transformation, benefitting South Korea politically and economically due to these political and economic ties to a recognized superpower. This growing influence of South Korea as an ally to the United States showed itself in the adoption of English loanwords and phrases. Similarly, the North Korean language began to incorporate Russian words into everyday speech, and the government of North Korea furthermore began a campaign to “purify” the Korean language by eliminating and replacing the numerous Chinese words that had made their way into the vocabulary. The difference this reformation made is staggering, considering the fact that over half of modern South Korean words have Chinese origins. Despite their geographical and cultural proximity, politics have driven a wedge into the only means of communication between the two countries. Many are unwilling to admit it, but over the past seventy years, Korean has divided into two languages.

From the simplest word to the most complex phrases, the two versions of the Korean language share little common ground. The word for “young lady” in the South means “slave of feudal society” in the North. Words for “community,” “shopping,” and “ice cream” all have different roots in the North and the South. The word for “friend” in Korean became “comrade” in the North, and was subsequently purged from the South Korean vocabulary. Not only have the languages separated, but they have also been politicized, reflecting the long-lasting impact of their countries’ respective occupations.

Korean linguists based in the South have attempted to catalogue the differences between the two strains of the Korean language. For the past thirty years, they have compiled a dictionary in order to bridge the growing linguistic divide. Chief editor Han Young-un recognizes the difficulty of this task. They have so far catalogued 55,000 words, and they aim to record 330,000 entries by 2019. Even this number is a rough estimate, as the languages continue to diverge. As a point of comparison, the English language consists of under 200,000 distinct words.

In an interview with the South China Post, Han admitted that the difference between North and South Korean is “so marked that architects from each side would probably have difficulty building a house together.” If architects can’t build a house, how can these two separate societies rebuild a country and a lost common culture?

Few have suffered more from the linguistic divide than North Korean defectors living in the South. Park Kun-ha, a defector who has lived in South Korea since defecting in 2005 said, “It’s incredibly frustrating. [Loanwords] are everywhere, and it’s essentially like learning a foreign language.” A worker from the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, based in Seoul, claimed that defectors can’t understand over 60 percent of South Korean words. Similarly, a study from 2001 indicated that less than 24 percent of defectors understood South Korean.

According to social worker Lee Young Hwan, this significant gap in intelligibility is also due to “unfamiliarity of the topics.” The political division of North and South Korea had clear effects on their cultures. The concept of shopping, for example, doesn’t exist in North Korea to the extent that it dominates life in South Korea. Defectors are at a loss when they attempt to understand unfamiliar norms and practices that developed in the South after the divide, as they must first learn the words to describe them.

Despite the cultural and linguistic obstacles that face re-integration of North and South Korea, recent efforts have begun to break down these barriers.

Hopes of Reunification

Many families were separated when the North-South divide was first created. Despite the decades that have divided these families, the desire to reunite has never faltered. The Korean War and its consequences cannot be forgotten, as it has split up both the peninsula and its people. Both the North and South Korean governments have made some efforts to heal these wounds. In 2010, the North Korean government hosted a dinner for South Koreans to reunite with relatives. Woo Won Shik, who travelled with his mother to Pyeongchang to meet his sister, described the “the burning joy when we met, and the abject misery of separation when we said goodbye.”

Reunification has been the dream of Koreans since the beginning of Soviet occupation. Woo’s sentiments are shared by people across the border. Since 2015, organized meetings for divided families have declined. For these reasons, the 2018 Olympics have re-ignited hopes of reunification and have presented this outcome as an alternative to further conflict in Korea. Woo, and many others, see the Olympics as the “last chance” for reunification. It seems that both countries are trying to seize this opportunity before it fades.

In just the few months preceding the Olympics, both countries have officially expressed some desire to reunify. In January 2018, officials from North and South Korea met to discuss easing the “military tension” and planning for a unified Korea. In a surprising move, North Korean representatives insisted that they were “opening the door” for discussing Korean unity. What this poses for the political future of the peninsula is unclear. It will be incredibly difficult to merge two drastically conflicting governments and societies. However, it is critical that their languages meet in the middle, both for the sake of discussion and cultural reunification.

Navigating the linguistic barrier between North and South will be the greatest social obstacle to reunification. The struggle of the women’s hockey team demonstrates the struggle Koreans would face in everyday interaction. Today, defectors must relearn an entire language in order to re-integrate into South Korean society. They are easily distinguished from the rest of the population by their inability to understand the language of the country they live in.

Refugees cannot recognize the Chinese and English loanwords that permeate the South Korean language. They struggle to assimilate; many are unable to find jobs. According to defector Kim Young Nam, “Our accent brands us as people who come from a place of poverty.”

Many are working towards the distant goal of a united Korea, and some of the most dedicated work has come from those who are concerned about the divided language. South Korean app developers Cheil Worldwide and Dream Touch For All introduced the app “Univoca” in 2015. The app was created as a tool to help North Korean defectors and refugees overcome the linguistic obstacles they face in South Korea. The app allows users to scan words in books and on signs and provides an automatic South to North Korean translation. Many schools and centers for defectors have opened in South Korea, as well. At the Hyankyoreh School for teenage defectors, teachers have noted that students have quickly grasped the South Korean vocabulary. Interpreters, linguists, and social workers have made overcoming the linguistic differences between the North and the South their top priority, and they have begun with bridging the gap that prevented defectors from participating in South Korean society.

To truly reunify Korea, the Korean language must reunify as well. While the current political climate doesn’t indicate rapid progress towards this goal, the symbolic moments from Pyeongchang give a glimmer of hope for the future of the Korean Peninsula. Despite the significant obstacles the women’s hockey team faced at the Olympics, they worked against the long history of miscommunication to break down the divides that kept them from succeeding. While they left the Olympics without a medal, the women’s hockey team won the admiration of their countries and the encouragement of the global community. At the end of the game, the players chanted “We are one!” as the audience cheered them on. If this scene at the Olympics is any representation of the Korean hope for reunification despite the challenges, perhaps that goal is not as impossible as it once seemed.