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[Robert J. Fouser] Hangeul Day beyond South Korea

Today, Oct. 9, is Hangeul Day, a national holiday in South Korea that honors Korea’s unique writing system. Hangeul Day was celebrated as a national holiday from 1949 to 1990 and again from 2013 to the present. From 1991 to 2012, Hangeul Day was a day of commemoration, but not a national holiday. The 23-year gap says much about Korea in the late 1980s and 2010s.

The late 1980s are known most for the democratization and the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. The dictatorial government of Chun Doo-hwan wanted to use the Olympics to highlight South Korea’s economic success and feared that political dissent would detract from that effort. Leaders of the democracy movement, meanwhile, focused their energy on ending the dictatorship and continuing democratization.

By 1989, the Olympics were history and South Korea had had two democratic elections, one for president in 1987 and another for the National Assembly in 1988. Other democratic reforms were taking root, and a booming economic was raising living standards. Amid the wave of liberal reforms and increased consumption, business interests began to argue that there were too many holidays in October and that frequent days off was hurting the economy. To reduce the number of days off, they pushed the government to remove Hangeul Day from the list of national holidays. Armed Forces Day, recognized on Oct. 1, was also dropped as a national holiday at this time.

Twenty years later, South Korea had grown into a thriving democracy with a large middle class. The country had weathered the severe financial crisis of 1997-98 and the global recession of 2008-09 successfully. Instead of increased consumption, economic worries shifted to fears of sluggish economic growth, as the population began to age rapidly. In this context, making Hangeul Day a national holiday again was aimed at stimulating consumption as people used the day for leisure activities. It was also part of “national branding” efforts that were in vogue at the time.

Of course, South Korea is not the only nation that uses Hangeul. North Korea calls the writing system “Joseongeul” instead of Hangeul because “Han” comes from the first syllable in Hanguk, the official South Korean name for all of Korea. North Korea uses “Joseon” to refer to all of Korea. “Geul” means “writing” and is attached after “Han” and “Joseon” respectively. Hangeul has become the common term in international linguistics scholarship because of South Korea’s close relations with Western countries.

Interestingly, Joseongeul Day is not a national holiday in North Korea, but a day of commemoration, like it was in South Korea from 1991 to 2012. Hangeul Day in South Korea is celebrated on Oct. 9, the day that King Sejong the Great promulgated Hangeul in 1446, but Joseongeul Day occurs on Jan. 15, the day that Hangeul was created in 1444.

The difference between the two Koreas reflects different approaches toward language policy since the division in 1948. From the start, North Korea adopted a Hangeul-only policy, while South Korea has allowed Chinese characters, to varying degrees. South Korea has embraced the heritage of the Joseon period while North Korea has cast it negatively as a “feudal age.”

In South Korea, then, honoring Hangeul is reflects reverence for King Sejong the Great, whereas in North Korea, the focus is on Hangeul as a nationalistic expression of Korean independence from China. This also explains why North Korea has adopted attempts to “purify” the language by replacing Sino-Korean words with newly developed native Korean ones.

As the only national holiday celebrating a writing system, Hangeul Day has been admired by linguists around the world. University of Chicago linguist James McCawley (1938-1999) was famous for holding a big Hangeul Day party every year to celebrate it as an international holiday for linguists. In an interview in 1999, McCawley stated that “Hangul is the most ingeniously devised writing system that exists, and it occupies a special place in the typology of writing systems.”

References to Hangeul Day as the only national holiday devoted to a writing system also make their way into linguistics textbooks. Linguists who research writing systems especially admire Hangeul and admire South Korea for celebrating it with a national holiday.

Praise from linguists overseas and growing interest in learning Korean added an international dimension to the push to revive Hangeul Day as a national holiday. Such influences would have been almost unthinkable in the late 1980s. Their subsequent growth and the revival of Hangeul Day underscore the rise of South Korea as cultural power during the 23-year gap.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean-language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.
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