Kim Soo-Gyong, a Korean Linguist Who Went North

Book Talk

Mar 6, 2024 | 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM

Common Room (#136), 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA,


Itagaki Ryuta | Professor, Doshisha University; HYI Visiting Scholar, 2009-10


Si Nae Park | Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations

Co-sponsored with the Korea Institute 

This talk presents the first book-length biography of Kim Soo-Gyong (1918-2000). A gifted linguist with extraordinary life trajectories, Kim is known in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for his central role in establishing the national orthography and standardizing the official Korean grammar.

Born in 1918 in Korea under Japanese colonial rule, Kim moved to North Korea in 1946 with hopes of revolution and joined the faculty of the newly founded Kim Il Sung University. He became a leading figure in Korean linguistics at a young age, studying the history of the Korean language through structuralist linguistics. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Kim was separated from his family. Although Kim disappeared from the academic scene in 1968, his honor was restored twenty years later. Even a novel featuring Kim was published in the DPRK during his lifetime.

Historical anthropologist Itagaki Ryuta published Kim’s biography in Japanese (2021), which was then translated and published in Korean (2024). Much more than a personal biography, the book cross-examines multiple contexts and issues – including colonialism and the Cold War, structural linguistics and Marxism, and family separation and reunification – to bring to light the tumultuous twentieth-century history of the Korean peninsula and beyond.