SEOUL — North Korea is sometimes seen as being trapped in a Stalinist time warp. And because it's so isolated, some South Koreans think that even the way people there speak Korean is stuck in the past.

It's becoming clear that one of the biggest challenges for the nearly 28,000 North Korean escapees who now live below the border is overcoming linguistic differences. So researchers are trying new ways to help close the language divide.

The North Korean accent is sometimes mocked on South Korean comedy programs for sounding quaint or old-fashioned. But Lee Song-ju says that when he speaks on the phone, people can no longer tell that he's a North Korean defector. The 28-year-old admits that when he arrived in South Korea back in 2002, his accent embarrassed him.

"I had a very strong North Korean accent," he says. "People just kept asking me about my hometown, my background. So whenever I was asked, I had to lie — because I don't want to share my story. People know North Korea is a very poor country."

He believes South Koreans would've looked down on him and he wouldn't have made any friends. So he picked up the local accent pretty fast.

Accent assimilation is one way defectors try to fit in here, says Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at the refugee support group Liberty in North Korea (LINK).

But he says the biggest linguistic challenge for newcomers is learning all the new words that South Korea has acquired during the past seven decades, since the peninsula was split.

"There's been a lot of linguistic change, particularly in the South with the influence of globalization and with the English language in particular," Sokeel says. "So when they arrive here, they are often surprised by the amount of borrowed words that they are unfamiliar with, as soon as they go to a coffee shop, for instance."

There's an app for that

For North Korean defectors struggling with South Korean words and expressions, a new smartphone app has been developed to bridge the language gap. It's called Univoca, short for unification vocabulary. It allows users to type in or snap a photo of an unknown word, and then offers a North Korean translation. There's also a section that gives practical language advice, like how to order a pizza. There's even a video explaining dating terminology.

One of the app's developers, Jang Jong-chul of the advertising firm Cheil Worldwide, explains how the vocabulary was chosen. He flips through a book with highlighted words on some pages.

"We first showed this typical South Korean grammar textbook to a class of teenage defectors who picked out the unfamiliar words," he says. "We also consulted older North Koreans to help with translations." So far, he says, about 3,600 words have been added to the app's database.

Blending in in Seoul — Photo: Jeon Han

Jang says that before he started working on the app he didn't realized how limited North Korean vocabulary was or how some expressions now out of style in the South are still used in the North.

To get a North Korean's opinion about the translation app, I ask Lee Song-ju to install it on his phone. We take a walk around a shopping plaza below the Se Ah Tow-wa, the Korean way to say "tower," which seems like a good one to start with.

"So now I'm typing it in the app," Lee says. "There's no translation for 'tower.'"

We pass an ice cream shop. He types in "ice cream" and gets a translation. "They said aureum-bolsungi in North Korean, but we didn't use this word when I was in North Korea. We just say ice cream or ice kay-ke."

We find a Dunkin Donuts and try again. "This is correct," he says. "In North Korean, it is Karakji-bang!" 

Based on this quick test, the app's vocabulary database seems somewhat hit or miss. Maybe its developers could get some help from Han Yong-woon: He's a South Korean lexicographer who for the past several years has worked with North Korean counterparts to assemble the first unified Korean dictionary. From what he's learned, he doesn't believe that the North Korean language is stuck in the past.

"All languages are living and growing, even North Korean," he says. "Over the years they've borrowed foreign words too, but mainly from Russian and Chinese."

Political tensions have gotten in the way of completing the joint dictionary, but Han hopes the project will be wrapped up in a few more years.

As for Univoca, the North Korean language app, it's open source, which means users can add new words as they come across them.

Defector Lee Song-ju says he was skeptical at first, but the app won him over. "This is really nice. I mean, it's pretty good, yeah. It's well designed. There aren't many functions, but all are really useful for North Korean escapees who just arrived here."