Language and Family Dispersion: North Korean Linguist Kim Su-gyŏng and the Korean War

Ryuta Itagaki, Doshisha University
Photo of Kim Su-gyŏng, 1986. Reprinted courtesy of Kim’s family in Toronto.
application/pdf iconDownload Article (644.52 KB)
Abstract: 


This article analyzes the unpublished memoir of Kim Su-gyŏng (1918–2000), a linguist who was active in North Korea from the mid-1940s until the late 1960s, and situates his account of his experience of the Korean War within the context of his linguistic essays and correspondence. In doing so, the article considers the role that the personal and the social play in language, utilizing Saussure’s theoretical framework, with which Kim himself was well versed. Kim wrote his memoirs in the 1990s to his family, from whom he had become separated during the Korean War and who now lived in Toronto. In this text, he writes in “personal” language that reveals his uncertainty and his feelings for his family, but then immediately negates these feelings through the use of “social” language, which resonates with his interpretation of the linguistic thesis that Josef Stalin developed during the Korean War on language and national identity. For Kim, the relationship between language and nation was not at all self-evident, but something that he idealized in response to the dispersal of his family. By offering a reflexive reading of a memoir written by a North Korean linguist, this article makes a breakthrough in the investigation of North Korean wartime academic history, which has not risen above the level of analyzing articles in the field of linguistics that were published at the time.

Keywords: North Korea, linguistics, family dispersion, Korean War, Kim Su-gyŏng, Ferdinand de Saussure, Josef Stalin