When I go to a new place, I now practice anchoring my experience by finding out about the country’s famous people. I always ask locals for suggestions. Naturally, I asked Koreans for some famous Koreans.
However, I didn’t have to ask anyone for my #1.
Famous Koreans: Historic
King Sejong (1397-1450) is my first famous Korean and pictured in the title image. He ascended to the throne in 1418. I don’t much care about dynasties. Rather, I chose him because he headed the committee to devise an alphabet for Korean. At the time of his reign, Korean was written in Chinese logograms, which are not suited to the grammar of Korean. He and his committee came up with Hangul ‘Great Script.’
Linguists tend to love Hangul. Space does not permit an explanation why. Suffice it to say that Hangul is an excellent alphabet.
Because of the prestige of the Chinese writing system, Hangul did not come into widespread use in Korea until the 20th century. Also because of the prestige of the Chinese writing system, Hangul is written in stacked syllables to make the script match the visual complexity of written Chinese.
For instance, the two-syllable word hangul, above, is written on the chart as: 한 글. The [ha] is on top of the first syllable with the [n] below it. The [gu] is on top of the second syllable with the [l] below it.
Famous Koreans: South
Anyone who isn’t linguist would have started the list with K-Pop. It’s a category in and of itself. There’s no point in trying to keep up with it.
I have chosen:
Psy. I won’t put in a clip of his Gangnam Style rap video because you have surely heard it – likely more than once. I have, however, given you the link to his Twitter account in case you want to join his 4.47 million followers.
Blackpink, the current top girl band. I’ve given you the link to their Twitter account, as well. It has 2.25 million followers.
BTS is the current top boy band. They have 15.1 million Twitter followers. It you can’t beat ’em …?
Linguistic note: BTS is short for ban ton sun, which itself is short for bangtan sonyeondan – and means something like ‘renegade boys’ or ‘bulletproof Boy Scouts.’
Nobel Prize Winner
Normally, a Nobel Prize would outshine a pop star, but in the current world that’s not the case. The 2000 winner of the Peace Prize – and the only Korean (so far) to win a Nobel Prize – was Kim Dae-Jung (1924-2009).
He was also President of South Korea from 1998-2003.
Olympics Medal Winner
Kim Yuna won Olympic silver medals for figure skating in 2010 and 2014. She has won numerous other competitions.
In 2018 she lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Famous Koreans: North
Oh Chong Song, now 27 years old, famously defected from North Korea in 2017. In his dash across the demilitarized zone, he was shot at least five times but lived to tell the tale.
The immediate reason he defected was because he thought war with the United States was inevitable. The more long-term reason was because of the social, economic and political conditions created by the following threesome:
Kim Il-Sun (1912-1994) was the first leader of North Korea and ruled from 1948-1994.
Kim Il-Sun’s son, Kim Jong-il (1941-2011), was Supreme Leader of North Korea from 1994-2011.
Since 2011 the Supreme Leader of North Korea has been Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un (born 1984).
He is known to Americans for at least three things, among others: his goofy haircut, his friendship with Dennis Rodman and the 14th-century English word ‘dotard’ which his translators revived on Twitter.
See also: Seoul, Korea, First Twenty-Four Hours
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen