Univoca app, bridging the lingo gap between the two Koreas.
Jason Strother

SEOUL — North Korea is sometimes seen as being trapped in a Stalinist time warp. And because it's so isolated, some South Koreans think that even the way people there speak Korean is stuck in the past.

It's becoming clear that one of the biggest challenges for the nearly 28,000 North Korean escapees who now live below the border is overcoming linguistic differences. So researchers are trying new ways to help close the language divide.

The North Korean accent is sometimes mocked on South Korean comedy programs for sounding quaint or old-fashioned. But Lee Song-ju says that when he speaks on the phone, people can no longer tell that he's a North Korean defector. The 28-year-old admits that when he arrived in South Korea back in 2002, his accent embarrassed him.

"I had a very strong North Korean accent," he says. "People just kept asking me about my hometown, my background. So whenever I was asked, I had to lie — because I don't want to share my story. People know North Korea is a very poor country."

He believes South Koreans would've looked down on him and he wouldn't have made any friends. So he picked up the local accent pretty fast.

Accent assimilation is one way defectors try to fit in here, says Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at the refugee support group Liberty in North Korea (LINK).

But he says the biggest linguistic challenge for newcomers is learning all the new words that South Korea has acquired during the past seven decades, since the peninsula was split.

"There's been a lot of linguistic change, particularly in the South with the influence of globalization and with the English language in particular," Sokeel says. "So when they arrive here, they are often surprised by the amount of borrowed words that they are unfamiliar with, as soon as they go to a coffee shop, for instance."

There's an app for that

For North Korean defectors struggling with South Korean words and expressions, a new smartphone app has been developed to bridge the language gap. It's called Univoca, short for unification vocabulary. It allows users to type in or snap a photo of an unknown word, and then offers a North Korean translation. There's also a section that gives practical language advice, like how to order a pizza. There's even a video explaining dating terminology.

One of the app's developers, Jang Jong-chul of the advertising firm Cheil Worldwide, explains how the vocabulary was chosen. He flips through a book with highlighted words on some pages.

"We first showed this typical South Korean grammar textbook to a class of teenage defectors who picked out the unfamiliar words," he says. "We also consulted older North Koreans to help with translations." So far, he says, about 3,600 words have been added to the app's database.

Blending in in Seoul — Photo: Jeon Han

Jang says that before he started working on the app he didn't realized how limited North Korean vocabulary was or how some expressions now out of style in the South are still used in the North.

To get a North Korean's opinion about the translation app, I ask Lee Song-ju to install it on his phone. We take a walk around a shopping plaza below the Se Ah Tow-wa, the Korean way to say "tower," which seems like a good one to start with.

"So now I'm typing it in the app," Lee says. "There's no translation for "tower.""

We pass an ice cream shop. He types in "ice cream" and gets a translation. "They said aureum-bolsungi in North Korean, but we didn't use this word when I was in North Korea. We just say ice cream or ice kay-ke."

We find a Dunkin Donuts and try again. "This is correct," he says. "In North Korean, it is Karakji-bang!"

Based on this quick test, the app's vocabulary database seems somewhat hit or miss. Maybe its developers could get some help from Han Yong-woon: He's a South Korean lexicographer who for the past several years has worked with North Korean counterparts to assemble the first unified Korean dictionary. From what he's learned, he doesn't believe that the North Korean language is stuck in the past.

"All languages are living and growing, even North Korean," he says. "Over the years they've borrowed foreign words too, but mainly from Russian and Chinese."

Political tensions have gotten in the way of completing the joint dictionary, but Han hopes the project will be wrapped up in a few more years.

As for Univoca, the North Korean language app, it's open source, which means users can add new words as they come across them.

Defector Lee Song-ju says he was skeptical at first, but the app won him over. "This is really nice. I mean, it's pretty good, yeah. It's well designed. There aren't many functions, but all are really useful for North Korean escapees who just arrived here."

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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