By Max S. Kim*
On Sept 25 South Korea’s presidential Blue House disclosed on its home page an “apologetic remark from North Korea’s leader” regarding the recent shooting death of an unarmed South Korean man in the Yellow Sea (West Sea).
But the displayed document did not have the linguistic characteristics of North Korean. It rather revealed significant fingerprints of South Korean and raised serious doubts about its origin. The next day the Blue House kind of confirmed its dubious origin by uploading a “revised version” that differed from the original one on a number of points.
North Korean and South Korean have distinct regional and dialectal differences, like the British vs. American varieties of English. It is inconceivable that the North Korean authorities produce formal documents using the vocabulary and linguistic conventions of South Korean.
This article highlights the linguistic evidence of the fabrication, then will discuss the deadlocked inter-Korean and Sino-Korean situations relating to the episode.
Summary of Linguistic Evidence
Word choices reveal excellent linguistic fingerprints that reflect dialectal and regional variation, and speakers naturally (and unconsciously) rely on their own mental lexicons (e.g. lift/elevator, (postal) pin code/zip code, dustbin/trash can, etc. in GB/US).
For an illustrative purpose, let me use the English translations of the questionable sentences in the original Korean document. Attention will be paid to the Korean words that are problematic for North Korean, which correspond to the underlined words in the English translations.
 “[When our soldiers], approaching a bit closely [to the man], shot two blanks…”
In the original document “gongpo-tann” (South Korean) was used for the word blanks; it was then changed to “gong-tann” in the revision, which is the correct North Korean word.
 “…the unidentified intruder was not found on top of the floating object…”
In the original, “wee” (South Korean) was used for the word top; it was later switched to “wu” (North Korean) in the revision. For floating object, the revision has retained the original word “buyumul,” but North Korean defectors agree that the North Korean word is “buryokday,” not “buyumul” as spoken in South Korean.
 “[as to why your Defense Ministry] has chosen words that strongly savor of disrespect and confrontation…”
The original document had South Korean words “owhee” and “ganghan” for words and strongly, respectively. In the revision “owhee,” which is nonexistent in North Korean, was replaced by “pyohyon” (lit. expression), and “ganghan” was substituted for by “giphun” (lit. deeply), which is a correct collocation for the phrasein North Korean.
Besides these, the revision showed a total of 37 corrections from the original and the alterations ranged from case-marking to word choice to (sociolinguistic) register (for an excellent review in Korean, see here).
North Korea has maintained prescriptive linguistic standards in all their public documents and state news media. In light of that, the apologetic letter from Pyongyang that the Blue House has proudly displayed was unequivocally a “product of South Korea.” As the saying goes, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it is a duck.
I like to suggest that the South Korean president frame the letter and keep it as a souvenir, be it fake or real, because the good old days are gone.
What political purposes does the alleged “apology from the North’s Supreme Leader” serve?
It helps the South Korean government to play down or even sideline the nature of the incident surrounding the tragic death of the South Korean man. Surprisingly, most representatives in the National Assembly want to foster the let-us-accept-his-apology-and-move-on sentiment.
More importantly, it helps the South Korean president pretend that the two Koreas have good and mature working relations and are ready to lift the truce and finally bring the Korean War to a peaceful end. That indeed is what Moon Jae-in called for in his virtual UN address on Sept 23.
But a declaration of the end to the Korean War benefits neither of the two Koreas. The downside of the declaration is that the US armed forces will no longer be required to stay in South Korea on behalf of the UN Command and when they withdraw, China will send its own troops to South Korea in the name of “peace keeping and regional stability in the face of nuclear threats from North Korea.” That is, the declaration is a Trojan horse that only serves the Chinese interest and agenda.
The Reality of Inter-Korean and Sino-Korean Relations
In reality, however, the inter-Korean relation is at its lowest. North Korea’s leadership called Moon Jae-in a “cooked ox-head” publicly and turned their back to Seoul. There is no chance for Seoul to gain Pyongyang’s trust again. Moon is desperate for reconnection with Pyongyang.
Moon infuriated Chairman Kim and President Trump during his mediation of their summits, by lying about each one’s position on economic sanctions and denuclearization to the other. The fiasco in Hanoi could have been avoided should Moon have not deceived the two men.
Pyongyang has since sought to open an independent diplomatic channel with Washington, which excludes Seoul and Beijing and obliterates the multi-party talk on denuclearization. That should scare Moon Jae-in and Xi Jinping.
Unlike what most people think, Pyongyang has never viewed Beijing as an ally and friend but rather always as their “enemy 10 times worse than the US or Japan,” as Kim Jong Il warned to his men. Their relation also has hit the bottom since North Korea closed down its borders with China early this year.
On the other hand, the South Korea-China alliance has gone through the ceiling. To be precise, Moon Jae-in has become servile to Xi Jinping, and the Chinese ambassador to Seoul behaves like “governor general of South Korea.”
Under these circumstances, it is quite natural that the inter-Korean relation go rocky and hostile. Pyongyang has every reason to view the “hand of friendship” that Seoul has extended to them, as fraudulent and exploitative.
Watching Pyongyang’s Nighttime Military Parade
Who will be North Korea’s ally? Trump will befriend Kim, but Biden will keep him at bay. Kim does not find a friend in Moon or Xi. Thus, for North Korea, the outcome of the US election will be a matter of a breakthrough or a dead end.
In this regard, I find the nighttime military parade in Pyongyang on Oct 10 was symbolic with a dual message. The military parade is the regime’s biggest celebration that brings the leaders, the military, and the citizens to one place. But this time, they chose to march in the dark. I like to view it as suggestive that North Korea is prepared for a new chapter in its history or else for the last chapter of its history.
If North Korea opens a new era with the US, they would have a glorious sun and their “Day of the Sun” (which symbolizes the personality cult of the regime’s founder and his dictatorship) will be a thing of the past. If that fails, the North Koreans have to fight the enemies surrounding Pyongyang (i.e. China, South Korea, and the US under Biden/Harris) and they would not see the sun again.
The sun that is rising tomorrow has an entirely different meaning for Pyongyang. And the tearful leader standing in the balcony and waving will be the first and the last in their memory. I hope the North Koreans will see the dawn.
*Max S. Kim received his PhD in cognitive science from Brandeis University and taught at the University of Washington and the State University of New York at Albany. Besides his own field of profession, he occasionally writes on regional affairs of the East Asia, including the two Koreas.