December 30, 2019

How to Sound Like a North Korean

Korean Language Histories Resources
(Want to skip the history? Scroll down to the List of 21 North Korean Words in Crash Landing On You)


How much do you know about the North Korean accent?

Netflix’s new drama “Crash Landing on You” launched last week, and suddenly the Koreasphere was all atwitter about the North Korean dialect, which is heavily featured in the show.

Most notably, the romantic male lead (played by Hyun Bin) speaks using the North Korean accent, causing all sorts of confusion among patriotic young drama watchers in the South. One commenter on Naver Cafe, a popular South Korean social media platform, mused that the North Korean accent could even become trendy, thanks to the show.

I visited North Korea in 2013. Unfortunately this was before I had started studying Korean, so while I certainly learned a lot about their culture and society, I wasn’t able to make a lot of observations about their language.

I hope I can go back someday in the future, when relations between our two countries are not so fraught. In the meantime, along with many other Americans and South Koreans, I’ll have to make do with the limited information we can access from outside.


The North Korean Accent

Seven decades of war (yes, they’re still technically fighting the Korean War) and major restrictions on media and travel between the two Koreas mean that the Korean people on both side of the Demilitarized Zone have grown apart, and nowadays speak two versions of the language that they share.

What is more, because of those media restrictions (South Korean nationals are not allowed to access North Korean web sites, and most North Koreans don’t have access to the internet at all) South Koreans have very few opportunities to even hear the North Korean accent, and vice versa.

There have been a few television shows featuring defectors (including one with the questionable premise of playing matchmaker between North Korean women and South Korean men). However,when North Korean defectors arrive in the South, they are encouraged to learn the South Korean accent as quickly as possible, in order to adapt to their new surroundings.

Unfortunately, these new arrivals often face discrimination from South Koreans, which only spurs them to drop their accent faster.

This means that many South Koreans under the age of 70 have very little familiarity with the North Korean accent at all. In fact, few South Koreans had even heard “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Un’s deep voice until 2018, when he shook hands with Donald Trump in a summit in Singapore.


Crash Landing On You: K-Drama Stars Learn North Korean

To prepare for their roles in the drama “Crash Landing On You,” the actors playing North Koreans worked with a North Korean defector, who served as their language coach. The defector taught the actors words and phrases used in the North — phrases that can be so different from what South Koreans are used to that they often come off as archaic or incomprehensible to the South Korean ear.

The show also features some funny moments in which the North Koreans are baffled by South Koreanisms – typically loan words that arrived via the English-speaking world (like “shampoo”), words for technologies that don’t exist in the North, and words that simply came into fashion in the South after the division of the peninsula in 1945.


How Different is North Korean from South Korean?

The languages are mutually intelligible; most of the time, North and South Koreans will have no trouble understanding each other.

After all, considering the pace at which languages typically change, the division occurred relatively recently. The two versions of the Korean language have not had that much time to diverge.

That said, the Korean peninsula had long been a region with a rich range of accent variations, even within before the division. As a result, there are some surprising differences in the prosody (musicality) of the language, and many, many words that are unique to Korea’s various regions.

Later on, I’ll show you a list of uniquely North Korean words used in the drama!


But First, What Are the Main Differences Between the North Korean and South Korean Languages?

The Name for Korea

Koreans have historically used a few different names to describe their country. Since the beginning of time, Koreans have called their country “Chosun” and “Koryo,” among other names.

But as the Koreans fought for independence from the Japanese, a provisional government set up in Shanghai chose a different name for their new country: “Han Guk,” or “the country of the Hans”, using the name of an early dynasty that ruled the whole peninsula.

(The Korean “Han” is unrelated to the Han of the Han Chinese, though they are pronounced similarly).

Thus, the name for the Korean language was rechristened “Han Guk mal”—literally, the language of the Han nation.

After the division, however, North Korea decided to retain one of the traditional names for the united Korean peninsula, Chosun.

Of course, neither country recognizes the legitimacy of the other. Charmingly, North Korea calls South Korea “South Chosun” while South Korea calls North Korea “North Han Country.”


Purposefully Ridding Themselves of Foreign Influence

The Japanese occupation of Korea came before the division of the peninsula in 1945, and after the peninsula was liberated, both Koreas worked to rid themselves of Japanese words in their language.

But since the split occurred soon afterwards, the words they managed to purge were not the same on each side, so North Korean does still retain a few Japanese words like 레루 (reru, from Japanese レール, reeru) which is 레일 (reil, from English “rail”) in the South.

North Korea, wanting to promote “self-reliance” in every realm including linguistics, made greater efforts to purge their language of Chinese-origin words, as well.

So, a lot of vocabulary differences between the North and South are due to South Koreans using Chinese-origin words, as you’ll see in the list of North Korean words.


North Korean Vocabulary from “Crash Landing On You”

And finally, here is a list of the vocabulary used in the Netflix drama “Crash Landing On You.” These 21 North Korean words are all from the first episode.

No. North Korean word South Korean word English meaning Difference
1 동무 친구 friend The word 동무 tongmu/dongmu is used to mean “friend” in the North and was originally used across the whole of Korea, but after the division of Korea, North Korea began to use it as a translation of the Russian term товарищ (friend, comrade), and since then, the word has come to mean “comrade” in the South as well and has fallen out of use there.


2 살결물 스킨 toner The South Korean word comes directly from the English word “skin,” while the North Korean word uses native Korean words.
3 김치움 No word the underground pit where North Koreans put the big kimchi jar Both North and South Koreans used to put kimchi jars in an underground pit. Now only North Koreans do it.
4 잊음증 건망증 forgetfulness The South Korean word comes from the Chinese.
5 손전화 핸드폰 cellphone The South Korean word is from the English (literally “hand-phone”).
6 가락지빵 도너츠 donuts The South Korean word is a transliterated form of the English word (doh-naw-chuh), while the North Korean word is made up of native Korean words.
7 허약 영양실조 malnutrition The North and South Korean words both come from the Chinese, but from different Chinese words—the North Korean version means “empty and weak,” while the South Korean version means “nutritional deficiency.”
8 돌개바람 강풍 strong wind The South Korean word comes from the Chinese.
9 후라이까지 마라 뻥치지 마라 don’t lie I can’t figure out the literal meanings of these, if you know, please let me know in the comments! But both are derived from the native Korean.
10 막대기 커피 믹스 커피 coffee Mix The South Korean word is derived from English (literally “mix coffee”) while the North Korean word uses the Korean word for “mix” and the English word for coffee.
11 세척크림 클렌징 크림 cleansing cream The South Korean word comes from English.
12 달리기 장사 원거리 무역 long distance trade The South Korean word comes from the Chinese.
13 살까다 살빼다 to lose weight Both are native Korean—just different usage!
14 빗물닦개 와이퍼 wiper The South Korean word comes from English.
15 살림집 아파트 apartment The South Korean word is from English (“ah-pah-tuh”) while the North Korean word comes from native Korean words.
16 밥가마 밥솥 rice cooker Just two different Korean words!
17 선선한 데 수용소 concentration camp The South Korean comes from Chinese, while the North Korean is native Korean slang/gallows humor, meaning literally “refreshing place”
18 놀가지 탈영병 a fugitive soldier The South Korean version uses Chinese words.
19 기캅시다 그렇게 합시다 let’s do that Just some North Korean slang!
20 귀때기 도청자 wiretapper The South Korean version uses Chinese words.
21 구멍탄불 연탄 briquette The South Korean version uses Chinese words.
22 아랫동네 South Korea North Korean slang, literally “the village down below”


North Korean Grammar from Crash Landing On You

How about grammar? That’s right, South Korean and North Korean not only have differences in their vocabulary, they have differences in their grammar too!

Here are some interesting North Korean phrases used on the same Korean drama, highlighting how their grammar differs from South Korean. If you read Korean, take a look at those verb endings!


North Korean line in the drama South Korean English meaning
나오겄디 나오겠지 (I) will be out
놀랐갔습네다 놀랐겠습니다 (She) must be surprised
식갔소 식겠어 It will be cold
기건 기렇디요 그건 그렇지요 That’s right
다 디지는고야 다 디지는거야 You will all die
그런 방법도 있갔디 그런 방법도 있겠지 There might be a way
하지 마시오 하지 마세요 Don’t do that
조금만 시간을 주시라요 조금만 시간을 주세요 Give me some time


South Korean vs North Korean Pronunciation


There are pronunciation differences all over the Korean peninsula, so I’ll stick to the main pronunciation differences between Pyongyang and Seoul—the North and South Korean capitals.


Korean letter Southern pronunciation Northern pronunciation
j ts
ch ts with extra air
jch Ok yeah, there’s no good way to write this in plain English, but it is [ts͈] in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
jee tsee
shee see



South Korean has two vowels that can be a devil for certain foreigners to learn:

ㅓ /ʌ/

(sort of like the “aw” in the British pronunciation of the word “bought”, we don’t have this sound in my dialect of Californian English)


ㅗ /o/.  much closer to the English “oh.”

The North Korean dialect, on the other hand, pronounces these two sounds almost identically to one another (so pronouncing “Seoul” in North Korean would sound more like “soh uhl” than the South Korean “saw uhl”).

Here are a few more fun differences in pronunciation. I won’t get too deep into the linguistic rules governing these phrases — just enjoy the difference if you speak some Korean! ?


Word Northern inflection Southern inflection Meaning
고맙다 [komap̚t͈a] 고마와 [komawa] komawa 고마워 [komawʌ] gomawo thankful
가깝다 [kak͈ap̚t͈a] 가까와 [kak͈awa] kakkawa 가까워 [kak͈awʌ] gakkawo near


North Korean Intonation

Since my Korean isn’t good enough to really catch the intonation differences between the two dialects, I asked a Seoul native what she thought of North Korean intonation.

These are her thoughts:

“The overall intonation fluctuates a lot more than South Korean. They use this intonation “↗↘” (low then high then low again) a lot. South Korean sounds more natural and soft, while the North Korean sounds more intense, in my point of view. And it seems that North Koreans are more likely to pronounce the first syllable for a long time, for example “뒤~졌답니다”.

I was really interested in how the actors modified their intonations in order to sound more North Korean. Now of course these were South Korean actors playing North Koreans, so we can’t take their intonation to be a fully accurate representation of the intonation used by North Koreans (unless their defector trainer was a REALLY good teacher).

But from the way the actors speak, you can tell that they dedicated time to working on this part of the accent in particular.

(I would love to get the opinions of a North Korean on the accuracy of these!)

Here are some of the intonation patterns used in the drama.


North Korean Intonation Examples from Crash Landing On You

North Korean (in the drama) South Korean English meaning
본↗인↘이 본→인→이 You
뒤~졌답니다 뒤졌답니다 She is dead
정↗말↘입네까↗? 정말입니까↗? Really?
기↗랬↘디요↗? 그렇지요↗? Isn’t it?


Other Accents in North Korea

As I mentioned, Korean accents vary a lot all over the peninsula. In case you are interested, here are some more really interesting North Korean dialect differences from other provinces in South Korea. Check out those verb endings!

Province North Korean South Korean Meaning Difference
Hamkyung 어디에 가심둥? 어디에 가세요? Where are you going? Hamkyung dialect uses “심둥” for interrogative sentences
Hamkyung 먹슴메다 먹습니다 (I) will eat Hamkyung dialect uses “-음메다/-슴메다” for a declarative sentence.
Hamkyung 떡으 개:오나라 떡을 가져오너라 Bring rice cakes Hamkyung dialect uses “-으/-르” for “-을/-를”
Hwanghae 안녕하시까? 안녕하십니까? Hello Hwanghae dialect uses “-시까” for honorific interrogative sentences.
Hwanghae 더는 못 먹갔시다. 더는 못 먹겠습니다. I can’t eat anymore. Hawnghae dialect uses “-시다” for an honorific declarative sentence.
Hwanghae 밥 먹었네? 밥 먹었냐? Did you eat? Hwanghae dialect uses “-네?” for an interrogative sentence.
Hwanghae 밥 먹으러 오라우 밥 먹으러 와라 Come eat Hwanghae dialect uses “-라우” or “-라요” for an imperative sentence.
Hwanghae 많이 추어졌누만 많이 추어졌구만 It is getting cold! Hwanghae dialect uses “-누만(요)” for an exclamatory sentence.
Hwanghae 집에 가셨댔어요? 집에 가셨었어요? Did you go home? Hwanghae dialect uses “-대” or “-댔” for a past form.
Pyeongan 바다이 바다가 Sea Pyeongan dialect use “-이” for “-이/가”
Pyeongan 내래 내가 I Pyeongan dialect sometimes uses “-래” for “-이/가”
Pyeongan 친구과 친구와 With a friend Pyeongan dialect uses only “-과” for “-와/과”
Pyeongan 밥 먹언? 밥 먹었냐? Did you eat? Peyongan dialect uses “-언/안” for non-honorific form. This is interesting, because it is similar to the Jeju dialect, deep in the south of Korea!


What do you think of the North Korean accent?

Will you be trying it out? Are you going to try to learn some of the North Korean vocabulary? Let me know in the comments!

I hope you enjoyed this North Korean lesson, and that you use your new knowledge for good. If you’re also interested in learning more South Korean, you can check out my Self-Study Starter Kit: Korean, which is a free list of online resources for studying Korean.



Check Also

How to Use Chinese Social Media Apps to Learn Chinese

When I found out I was going to move back to China, I knew it …


  1. I love your work! This is awesome!

  2. 후라이까지 마라
    Lit. Do not fry?

    I don’t really know, I’m just guessing.. 🙂

  3. I actually really like the sound of the North Korean accent. It’s a shame we don’t get to hear much of it.

  4. Very nice. Thank you. I’ll send this to my mother-in-law, who was a war refugee from Kaesong just across the border, the old capital before 1500.