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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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 that caused identity problems for me in the past. 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…