Today is Hangul Day in Korea. In commemorating their alphabet, Koreans acknowledge the remarkable script designed exclusively to fit the language. Like many countries in East Asia, Korea was heavily influenced by Chinese culture. However, the Chinese characters were cumbersome when applied to Korean. As a result only in elites were literate.
To solve this problem, King Sejong introduced the Hangul script 567 years ago to encourage Korean cultural identity and expand literacy. Just how the script was derived is a matter of debate. The traditional account indicates that the shapes of the consonants are approximations of the shapes of the most representative organ needed to form that sound. Another theory suggests that the ‘Phags-pa script derived by a Tibetan monk for the Mongol Yuan dynasty of China was adapted for the Korean language. The Mongols being deemed uncouth barbarians and long since driven out of China any open acknowledgment of such roots would have been offensive to the literati.
The official commentary accompanying the introduction of the script proclaimed:
“A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”
Regardless of the accuracy of the boast, the Hangul alphabet does appear to have met its intended goal of improving literacy, perhaps too well. In 1504, King Yeonsangun banned the use of Hangul after commoners put up posters mocking him. The Confucian literary elite opposed the script deeming it a threat to their status. However, the script revived in the 16th and 17th centuries and was adopted in official documents in 1894 as a nod to rising Korean nationalism. Yet literary snobs still used Chinese and the majority of Koreans at this point were still illiterate. The Japanese banned Korean literature in their attempts at forced assimilation during their occupation of Korea The script returned after the independence of Korea at the end of the World War II.
Hangul is now the official script of both North and South Korea.