When Ken Eom fled North Korea in 2010 to South Korea, he was astonished by how much a shared Korean language and culture had split after decades of war and division. Not only did this free and modern Korea look different than the only Korea he ever knew, the language in the South sounded at times bewildering.
His Northern inflection struck his co-Koreans as foreign, a telltale sign that also led to problems in the South. “I could understand maybe 70 per cent” of the Korean conversations on the streets of Seoul, Eom, 37, said recently in an interview at an English school in the South Korean capital. “But on the different side, the South Koreans couldn’t understand me! They couldn’t understand our language.”
Unless a defector spent time living near Pyongyang or another city close to South Korea’s border, Eom said, a Northern accent — faster, more clipped and with a “spiky, up-down” intonation — could be so thick that South Koreans would have trouble picking up half the speaker’s words.
Ostensibly safe in the South, Eom found himself contending with accent discrimination. Eom recalled phoning a gas station to inquire about job openings. The prospective employer, detecting an accent, cut him off and asked if Eom was from China. “I said, ‘Uh, I’m not Chinese people. I’m actually North Korean,'” Eom said. The gas station manager made it clear he wasn’t interested.
It’s common among defectors in their 20s and 30s to try to erase any traces of their North Korean backgrounds upon arriving to South Korea, in an effort to neutralize potential stigma associated with being raised in the regime, said Eom, now a graduate student studying policy analysis at Korea University.