The OTHER Korea Pavilion (Shanghai Expo 2010)

Note: For the purposes of this article, you need a short lesson in Korean language.

We call the country “Korea” in English, but it’s name in Korean isn’t anything close to “Korea”.

In South Korea, they call it Hanguk.  In North Korea, they call it Choson.  Because of this difference, there is a slight vocabulary difference whenever talking about Korean things.


English Word     South Korean Word     North Korean Word

Korean (person)    Hanguk Saram                      Choson Saram

Korean (language) Hangukmal                           Chosonmal

Hangeul                     Hangeul                                   Chosongeul

South Korea            Namhan                                 Nam Choson

North Korea            Pukhan                                    Konghwaguk (Literally, “The Republic”)

Korean clothing     Hanbok                                   Chosonbok

In addition, the country can be refered to as Urinara (meaning “our country”) and the language can be called  Urimal (meaning our language).

Sometimes South Koreans can use the term Urinara to mean only South Korea, while still referring to North Korea as Pukhan, which would imply that they think of North Korea as a separate country, but the term Urimal is decidedly neutral to describe the language itself.

End note!


Remember when I told you about the Korea pavilion? (Okay I guess I have to call it the South Korea Pavilion in this article)…

Anyway, remember when we were talking about the South Korea Pavilion? It had a 4 hour minimum wait, showed off Korea’s super high technology, and highlighted Korean cultural performances. It was one of the most popular hits of the whole Expo. Well, not too far from the South Korea pavilion was the DPR Korea pavilion.  It was towards the end of my first day at the Expo and I was wondering what North Korea could possibly do to compete with their southern neighbors.  As I was wearing my Expo staff pass that prominently displayed that I was from Korea, I thought it’d be a good idea to hide it as I walked in, so as not to make the staff inside think that I’m somehow a spy for the South Korean government.

OKAY, YES, I KNOW!!!  If I were a spy, my mission wouldn’t be to look at a pavilion that anyone in the expo park has access to.  Also having a badge that says REPUBLIC OF KOREA would pretty much make it obvious that I’m not a spy.  But I just didn’t want to bring any unnecessary attention to myself.  I was determined to talk to the people inside, as these would officially be the first North Koreans (that had actually been to North Korea) that I had ever talked to in my life.  (I encountered many North Korean affiliated Zainichi in Japan, but since they’ve never been to North Korea, I decide that this doesn’t count.)  I didn’t want them to react unkindly to my South Korean staff pass.  So, tucking the pass into my sweaty polo shirt, I waltzed in hoping to find the equivalent of the mass games inside.

Well, as soon as I walked into the pavilion, I noticed that it was a LOT smaller than the South Korea Pavilion. Check the video to see what it was like.

On the left was a tiny replica of the famed Juche tower in Pyongyang.  There was also a gazebo type thing on the right, and a bridge.  Next, there was some TVs showing us how wonderful life in North Korea is.

I thought that these were from the 70’s given the quality of the video.  It turns out though that they were made this year.  Above those TVs was a sign labeled “Paradise for People!”  Now, I myself have never been to North Korea, but I don’t know what the North Korean government is trying to accomplish by calling itself a paradise for the people.  The videos show the relative standard of living in North Korea, by showing smiling kids, the basic apartment, people shopping, the subway.  If life in North Korea is 100% like what is in the video, then it looks comfortable enough to live, but it’s definitely NOT paradise.  Something tells me though that life is actually a lot worse than what was shown in the video.

Now that I had seen the entirety of the pavilion (yes, it was that short), I decided to check out what items they had on sale.  There were various pins and pictures, and books penned (supposedly) by Kim Jong Il.  I wanted to buy a Kim Il Sung pin, but there didn’t seem to be any.  There was a nice lady behind the counter, so I thought I’d ask her.

So… drumroll.. my first conversation with a North Korean person!!!

Me:  Hi, um…. do you have any Kim Il Sung pins for sale?

North Korean Lady:   I’m selling is not ready!

Me: Huh?

NKL:  The wanting thing not um… isn’t… um… Can you say Chinese?

Me: 한국마…. 조선말으로 말해주세요.  (Wow, how can I translate the nuance here?  I asked her to say it in Korean, but I made the mistake of calling Korean “Hangukmal”.  North Koreans call the language “Chosonmal”.  See the note above.  I quickly corrected myself after making the initial mistake)

Attempted Translation : “Can you say it in Hangukian, er.. Chosonese please?”  The rest of our conversation was in Korean, mine sounding more like Seoul dialect than anything else, and hers with thick Pyongyang accent.

NKL: I’m sorry, but we don’t have any of the Great Leader’s pins for sale.

Me:  Oh, I see… can I take a picture of you?

books penned by the Dear Leader himself!NKL:  (puzzled) Where are you from?

(Well, I can’t say I’m from South Korea obviously, but would it be a mistake to say I am from the U.S.?)

Me: Oh, I’m just visiting the Expo… I… thought I’d look around.

NKL:  Well you speak Chosonese so well.

Me: Thanks… I have a lot of Chosonese friends.  (I think I’ve invented a new word!  There’s no real word Chosonese in English, but it serves our purposes here…)

NKL:  Have you ever been to Choson?

(Okay.. the question was confusing me, did she mean North Korea specifically? Did she mean the Korean peninsula?)

Me: I’ve never been to Pukhan but… er.. um yes, I’ve been to Choson.  (I made the huge mistake of saying the word Pukhan, which is what South Koreans call North Korea.)

NKL:  (Slightly incensed) Our country’s name is not Pukhan.  It is the Democratic People’s Republic of Choson. That’s a long name so usually we like to call it “The Republic”. (공화국)

Me:  Yes, I uh… well I went to Panmunjom and I entered Choson through there inside one of those blue buildings. (Panmunjom is the location of the Joint Security Area.  That’s the only place where North and South Korean soldiers see each other every day.  There are some buildings in the JSA that are half in North Korea, half in South Korea.  If you enter one of the buildings, you can stand in North Korea if you walk to the northern end of the building.. So technically, yes, I have been to North Korea.)

NKL:  So you came in from Namhan?  (Wait, now I’m confused.  Why is she using the term Namhan? Nam means south.  Han means Korea, but in the nomenclature that South Korea likes to use.  If me saying Pukhan wasn’t okay, why is it okay for her to say Namhan… Or is she just saying that so that I will understand her?  Is my cover now blown?  Does she know I have been living in South Korea?)

Me: Yes, I…

NKL: Then you’ve been to Choson! (She means to imply that Choson is the name of the whole country and the North Korean government is the only legitimate Korean government.)

Me: Yes, I guess I have.

NKL: I’m sorry but I’d prefer if you didn’t take my picture.

Me: Okay.

Yes, in my first conversation with a North Korean person, I was too insensitive.  I still got her picture though because I am sneaky.  I kind of felt bad that in my first conversation I managed to make her feel uneasy like that, but, was that really her?, or is that simply how the North Korean government would have her act?

On the way out I passed another counter.  Some Japanese guy who doesn’t speak Chinese kept asking this North Korean guy in Japanese what the writing on the pin he just bought was.  The North Korean man said something in Chinese.  The Japanese didn’t seem to understand and asked again in Japanese.  They went back and forth as the North Korean guy kept struggling to explain what it was, continually speaking in Chinese,  but the Japanese guy was totally lost.  Finally I stepped in and asked him to say it in Urimal.  (That wasn’t really my intention, but that’s how it came out. I guess my brain was cautious enough to avoid the word Hangukmal, but Chosonmal hadn’t registered yet. Urimal means “our language” in Korean.  It’s quite funny when someone who isn’t Korean uses the term Urimal.  I’m kind of Korean, but I don’t look like I am, so I’m sure the guy was amused.

He said in Korean.. It’s a gate… you can see the West Sea from it.

The West Sea is also known as the Yellow Sea.  It’s West of Korea, so that’s why it’s called the West Sea on the pin.  I explained in Japanese to the Japanese guy that it was some gate in North Korea where you can see the Yellow Sea.

The Japanese guy then asked, what was special about the gate.

So I asked the North Korean guy.  His reply was difficult to understand, but from what I gather it was built after the Korean war as a tribute to the Chinese who assisted North Korea, and it faces the West Sea, in the direction of Beijing.  At least I think so.  It’s really difficult to understand men who speak quickly in a dialect I’m not totally familiar with.  He also used terms I’m not familiar with, as the Korean war in South Korea is called the 6-2-5 War (as it started on June 25th) or the Hanguk War.  In North Korea it’s the Choson War.  In China it’s “The War against U.S. Aggression and to Aid Korea” and I think this is the term that the North Korean guy used in his explanation, only translated into Korean.  I could have been totally wrong, but I explained what I thought it was to the Japanese guy.

The North Korean guy smiled and we had a conversation.

He asked me in Korean if I spoke English. I replied that I did.

The rest of our conversation was in English.  His English was FREAKING AMAZING.  It was like he had memorized the whole dictionary and I bet you he’d make a great SAT teacher.  It didn’t sound native at all, but the level of vocabulary he was using was stunning.  To top it all off, he almost had a kind of snooty British accent!  I don’t have a transcript of our conversation, so I am estimating his verbosity.

North Korean Guy: Your proficiency in our language is quite good.

Me: Thanks.

NKG:  Have you ever visited our fine country?

(Oh no, what does it mean, “our fine country”?  Does he mean North Korea specifically or is he talking about the whole peninsula.  What should I say so as not to make him angry?)

Me: Um.. I.. well I have never been to Pyongyang.

NKG: Oh, heavens no! I wouldn’t have expected you to have been there.  Afterall, you speak as if you’ve learned our language in the capital area.

Me: (relieved) Yes, I’ve visited Seoul before.

NKG: I find it doubtful that you have only merely visited.  The mere fact that your pronunciation and intonation sound wonderful compared to most foreign learners makes me think that it’s possible that you might have some ancestry from within our great society.  Furthermore, your accredation pass has the word KOR on it, and I find it highly unlikely that our friends in the south would have bestowed the pass on a mere tourist.

(Oh no!  Since I was on my way out of the pavilion before the conversation began, I had taken the pass out of my shirt.)

Me:  Yes, I .. live in Seoul, and my father is Korean. (feeling a little bold)  I grew up in the United States.

NKG:  Oh! Well then, you and I are brethren!  I hope one day when the nonsense that divides our country is finished with, we can meet again from within our own country.

(Wow!… I mentioned before in an earlier article that Korean-Americans and South Koreans are so quick to tell me that I’m not a Korean and how irritating this has been for me.  It’s the first time I had ever met this person and it’s like he’s seeing me as a fellow Korean instead of “that foreign guy.”  I was somewhat touched.)

Me:  Yes, I hope we live to see the day.

It then got busy as a wave of tourists wanting their Expo passport stamped flooded the desk, and my new friend was off to help his colleague deal with the “human wave”.

I walked out the back of the pavilion and back towards the South Korea pavilion reflecting on the whole encounter.  It really is rare that Koreans I meet for the very first time consider me Korean.  I really liked the feeling actually.  I was quite happy as I arrived at the ROK pavilion staff entrance.
The South Korean staff kept looking at my face and looking at the pass repeatedly.  She asked in English where I got the pass.   My family name is Korean so she suspected that I had taken it from a Korean person and pasted my face on it somehow.  I then explained that since my father was Korean, I have a Korean family name, and yes, that’s really me.  She didn’t seem like she was buying it.

I said in Korean that I was headed for the office, and I guess that somehow convinced her.  She said in Korean that she hadn’t seen me before and she apologized.  She then gave the excuse that since I wasn’t Korean she didn’t believe me at first.

I let out a sigh of frustration as I took the elevator up to the office…



29 Responses to “The OTHER Korea Pavilion (Shanghai Expo 2010)”

  1. its sad to see people such as the south korea lady “She then gave the excuse that since I wasn’t Korean she didn’t believe me at first.”

    i as a half japanese, i know your feeling. i was always too japanese to be an australian, so i never got to know many aussies. but here in australia there is not many japanese, so i mostly made friends with chinese people and shopped at chinese stores. a lot would look at me and think “oh hes not chinese so he is a westerner”…. where as when im back in tokyo i feel at home, because most japanese pick me for a half japanese. i feel that good feeling you felt with the north korea guy, how he regarded you as a fellow korean.

    i just love that feeling of fitting, a feeling “full blooded” people often take for granted.

    • I understand your felling Ken (and also of the Seoul Searcher)! I am half italian and half tunisian but my problem is quite different because tunisians think of me as a fully tunisian (typical of arab mentality LOL).
      Actually many people (Chinese and Korean) asked me if I have asian origins because of my eyes and it happened really often that people ask me if I’m south American. -_-”
      I know a lot of mixed people but I always notice that everyone has big difficulties in feeling “full blooded” and fully accepted, but when it happens it’s wonderful!

      I’m happy to read that the Seoul Searcher have felt like that with a North Korean. 🙂

      Actually, can we really speak of races in the XXI century?

      • The Seoul Searcher Says:

        Arabs draw strength from being accepting of all other Arabs regardless of racial mixture. I think that’s great. Black Americans usually accept multiracial blacks as black. It’s the whites and the Asians who seem to have a problem with this.

        BTW Melly, my great-grandmother was an Italian born in Tunisia, so you’re my sister right?

        • 우아!!! Of course we are! The world is wonderfully so small sometimes!!! 😀

          Ah! I remember a song by Tasha (Black happiness) that speaks exactly about this “problem”. Surely you all know it.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      It’s interesting, because when I was in Japan, lots of Japanese asked if I was Japanese and I sometimes got that feeling of belonging, however I felt the most Korean I have ever felt in my whole life in Japan, and simply the explanation that I was half Korean seemed to be enough for people in Japan to adjust to that fact (usually). In the U.S. and Korea they don’t seem to want to let it stick.

      Understandable though.

      I wouldn’t say I don’t have a feeling of fitting.. it’s just the initial fitting in front of strangers I guess. How long till you’re in Japan?

  2. This post somehow reminded me my post about the day I went to the Korean stores and when I had a difficult time with the Owner of the 1st store,,,, it’s like I didn’t want to offend her and that’s why I didn’t even try to say Hello in hangul :S
    and your experience with the other NK guy,,,it’s also like the one I had with the lady of the Last store… I’m glad i’m not the only one who felt like that when talking to a Korean….. 🙂

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Gisela.. Hangul (or Chosongul) is the writing system. It’s impossible to say anything in Hangul, because it’s a writing system. It’d be like saying can you speak alphabet? Can you speak Chinese characters?

      I’m glad you could connect with my experience though. And your blog is coming along very nicely!

  3. Unfortunately we live in a world where many people judge a person’s ethnicity base on race. Ethnicity and race is seperate in my book but it is a concept foreign to many people around the world.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      I always thought race was a broader term (such as White, Asian, Black, Latino,) and ethnicity was a more narrow term (Korean, Chinese, Japanese), yet both were based on biology.

      What’s the difference in your book?

      • I agree that ethnicity is a narrow term but I do not think its based on biology. I believe that a person’s ethnicity is base on language, culture, traditions, food, common values, etc. This is why you can consider Obama an ethnic American as well as Bush but obviously they are of different race.

        • The Seoul Searcher Says:

          I guess you’re right because Latino/Hispanic is an ethnicity, but not a race, as there are white hispanics black hispanics, and indiginous hispanics, with a lot of mixtures in between.

          • That is why my man if you speak, eat, practice the culture and traditions etc you are a korean like me even though you are bi-racial and don’t let others so call purebred (me) tell you otherwise.

  4. I’ve studied and made researches that I’ve presented at university about the creation of the Hangeul/Chosongeul. I also felt uneasy because of the differences of language between North and South Korea. So I perfectly understand your difficulty in having a conversation with a North Korean and trying not to offend him.
    Chosonese!! hahaha! funny neologism! But indeed it should be a good idea to create such a word so that we couldn’t make mistakes.
    I’ve also seen a video of north Korea on TV-news just few days ago and I was surprised by the really bad quality and by how the people were dressed!!! It is a paradox to call it a “Paradise for People!”.
    Photography is my great passion and I would like to introduce the great photographer Eric Lafforgue because he has been to North Korea several times. His photos represent the North Korean reality. It’s quite impressive to see North Korea as a really undeveloped country and his neighbor, the modern and technologically advanced South Korea.
    Here is a link with an album (photos and videos) representing his 4 trips to North Korea:
    I post it because I find it really interesting especially if you want to see the big differences that affects the Korean peninsula.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Eh? Chosonese will help us not make mistakes? I invented it for this article, I didn’t actually say it.

      Yes, the images I see coming out of NK look like the 1970’s in SK. This is why it’s so striking. It was kind of ironic to see those videos on flat screen TVs, which are a relatively new technology.

  5. The dress looks so nice 😀

  6. Oh this is an interesting topic.
    I didn’t know that there is a north Korea pavilion in Shanghai Expo. And your experience in north korea pavilion was very impressive(especially the conversation with north korean lady). I can imagine that situation.
    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. Very interesting read! I totally missed the North Korean Pavillion when I was there. And yes, the Korean Pavillion is a 3+ hours wait so I didn’t get a chance to go in. Anyways, just want to point out how interesting the east asian languages intertwine with each other. The Korean language sounds very much like Cantonese. When referring to SK and NK, we say “Namhon” and “Bukhon”. for Korea in general, we say “Hanguok” 🙂

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      I guess it’s because South Korea has more influence over China these days. I remember also that in my university, the chinese class taught north and south korea as hanguo and beihan… then again, most of the teachers there were from taiwan, so it makes sense that they’d go with the pro-south language.

      As for the similar pronunciation of korean and certain chinese dialects, yes, that makes sense, as when Koreans incorporated chinese characters into our language, it reflects whatever dialect was prominent in China at the time, which if I am not mistaken was the Tang Dynasty. So Tang dynasty spoke the chinese characters in the way that Koreans do now… or at least something similar to it…

  8. I’m so sorry to have written about you as a foreigner before. I was thoughtless.. I don’t know what to say now..T_T

    This post is so interesting =)

    Especially, I was so impressed about the North Korean guy! I fully understand why you said his English was FREAKING AMAGING!!!!!! haha He’s like a textbook….!

    Your background knowledge about Korea is also amazing! Everything you wrote on posts is VERY correct. Even some of my friends sometimes confused the usage between Hangeul and Hangukmal.

    While reading this, I wanted to say something 🙂 I don’t know if it’s related to this post!

    Do you remember me saying I’ve visited North Korea? Before entering North Korea, we had an orientation not to make a verbal mistake to North Koreans. The guide said, “Say 남측(Namcheuk. Meaning the southen part) and 북측(Bukcheuk. Meaning the northern part) instead of saying 남한(Namhan), 북한(Pukhan), 남조선(Namchosun) or 북조선(Pukchosun).” That’s the agreement South Korea and North Korea signed.
    So you can say those words when you meet a North Korean again =D

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      dude, it’s ok! Don’t worry about it at all.

      Regarding Namcheuk, Bukcheuk… yea, that’s kind of what the North and South people should say when they meet each other. When the other Korea isn’t involved, however, they just use han or choson…

  9. Rudy Choi Says:

    You f%$king communist! Why do you always have to praise North Korea in every post. They are f%$king up everything for all Asians. You wrote 3 things about North Korea and in all of them you’re practically licking the dear leader’s boot, asking him to f%$k you in the @$$ even more.
    Edited for content, please don’t curse on my blog. -SS

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      This will be your one response. I said before that I ‘m not a fan of the North Korean government. Talking about wishing for the wellbeing of the North Korean people or feeling happy that one accepted me as a fellow Korean isn’t praise for the North Korean regime.

  10. Thanks for the entry and of note clarifying the vocabulary between the two Koreas. It’s fascinating and yet desconsertante as the two nations have created some new customs after the divide.

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