Looking on Wikipedia I see that in many of the languages of the former communist countries, namely East European, the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung (or Song) (1912-1994) is called Kim Ir Sen. (I am posting the Polish page because it has more links to other languages than other pages have.)

The difference is not in the family name - which is Kim.

It seems a difference based on the former political divide of the Cold War, as in French and other West European languages, but also in Turkish and Greek (Turkey and Greece already being NATO members at the time), the name used is the same as in English. On Wikipedia I have not found a non (former) communist country that calls him Kim Ir Sen.

I see no linguistic similarity between countries using the same form of the name (Russian, Latvian, Albanian, Romanian share the same "communist" form), so the cause must be politic. But how has been the political divide projected in the name of this man?

To make things more interesting, there are also some exceptions: in former-Yugoslav countries, that is on the Wikipedia pages in Serbian, Croat, Slovenian and Macedonian, he is called like in the Western Europe: Kim Il Sung.

In Bulgarian, which is close if not identical to Macedonian, it's Kim Ir Sen. At least Croats and Serbs use the same name... But not Slovak and Czech, which were in the same country during the communist era: the Wikipedia page in Slovakian uses the "Western" form.

Maybe this differences between neighbours are recent. Are they also political?

The difference in pronunciation between "Ir Sen" and "Il Song" may be bigger in some languages than in others. In some languages it seems big to me (French, Romanian); maybe it's less striking in English... This is even more confusing by the fact that the Kim dynasty includes already three names of presidents all called Kim, a series in which the aforementioned difference might suggest a fourth one.

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    @ed.hank - I speak Romanian, English, French, Italian, have notions of Bulgarian and Serbian, I can say that is not true, it does not sound the same in all these languages. What that could mean is that the Korean names can be transcribed in different ways in European languages. But it is transcribed in only two ways, and these two ways are separated as I describe. Why?
    – user8690
    Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 23:34
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    The Slovak orrthography was updated after 1993 and the page does list the older orthography as well. Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 8:05
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    @VladimirF - That explains it. From my Wikipedia search Slovak was the only exception to the rule that in ex-pro-Soviet countries (therefore not in Yugoslavia) the Russian/Soviet transliteration was used. When Slovak and Czech separated (and Slovak orthography updated) the Soviet model had already gone, so Slovak took the western transliteration. I expect the trend to be followed by other countries, already the two versions are used in parallel in the press.
    – user8690
    Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 13:53
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    I'd like to point out that the very same thing is going on with his son Jong-il known as Chen Ir.
    – Džuris
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 18:09
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    I'm latvian and we use "R" there - lv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kims_%C4%8Cenirs But I also see the "R" in multiple other languages - Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Belarusian, Azerbaijani...
    – Džuris
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 22:59

2 Answers 2


Under an older system of transliteration, the Russians transliterated 김일성 (Kim Il-Sung) as Ким Ир Сен (Kim Irsen), which is still the standard way of rendering his name in Russian. Under the currently standard Kontsevich system, it would instead be transliterated as Ким Ильсо́н (Kim Ilson).

It seems that those countries that were closer to Russia politically tended to follow the Russian transliteration Ким Ир Сен (Kim Irsen); while those more to the west tended to use the Roman transliteration Kim Il-Sung.

By the way, this explains why Kim Jong-Il (son of Kim Il-Sung) was born Yuri Irsenovich (son of Ir Sen) Kim.

See this discussion: https://thediacritics.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/whats-in-a-kim/

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    was born Yuri Irsenovich - you mean in Russian :)
    – user8690
    Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 23:50
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    He was born on Soviet soil (despite the official North Korean mythology that he was born on Paektu Mountain in Korea). And so his Soviet birth record would probably have been in Russian. Time magazine: "According to Soviet records, Kim was born there as Yury Irsenovich Kim, the son of a rank and file officer of the Red Army, Kim Il-Sung".
    – user3521
    Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 23:55
  • So, no special reverential appellative in the "communist" form of the Kim Ir Sen name then! As my childhood was lived under the "Golden" era of Ceausescu for whom Kim Ir Sen was a master to emulate, I was expecting something like the Japanese "san" or "sensei" - look here and here two youtube versions of the same example of exotic propaganda.
    – user8690
    Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 0:18
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    Fantastic answer! I just want to note that the pronunciation of "Kim Il-sung" in Korean and "Kim Ir Sen" in Russian are really not that different. You can see for yourself thanks to Google Translate by clicking on the left(Korean) and right(Russian) speaker buttons.
    – undercat
    Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 9:46
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    @undercat erm... I'd say they are very different. The Ильсо́н version mentioned in this answer sounds to my native Russian ear much more similar to the Korean sample pronounced by Google Translate, than Ир Сен is. Especially noticeable is the difference between "ль" (soft L) and the "р" (rolling R).
    – Ruslan
    Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 16:19

The Korean language has a different set of phonemes compared to most Indo-European languages.

Phonemes are individual sounds that are distinguished in pronunciation and used to differentiate words. For example, in English the words lot and rot are perceived as different because of the way the first letter (l versus r, typically denoted /l/ versus /r/) is pronounced. The East Asian languages Korean and (perhaps more famously) Japanese do not distinguish between an /l/ and an /r/ sound. In the Korean script, these both correspond to one letter (ㄹ). Depending on the surrounding, this sound may sound more like an l or more like an r to a westerner but a Korean will ‘hear’ no significant difference.

Furthermore, the vowel in Sung, denoted in Korean by the symbol ㅓ, corresponds to a sound which does exist in most European languages but does not have its own reserved letter: the schwa sound (again with potentially different pronunciation depending on the environment). In English, the schwa is used for reduced vowels: the e in unemphasised the, the second o in common or others. Korean uses a single symbol and differentiates it from other vowels such as a, e, i, etc.

The differences are suddenly significant when one tries to transliterate the original Korean into another language with a different script. Maybe you have seen the different spellings of Mao (Mao Tse-tung or Mao Zedong) depending on which romanisation standard was used. Likewise, various methods for the transliteration of Korean exist which were used at different times and by different countries.

According to the currently used system of South Korea (Revised McCune-Reischauer), the name would be spelt Kim Il-Seong in English—a spelling you probably have never seen before. The previous romanisation would indeed have turned him into the more common Kim Il-Sŏng. Because it was used at the time, people got used to it and the name was not changed when the revised system was introduced.

Unfortunately, I am not able to exactly source what happened in these countries you mention. However, the other answer has already provided that a different, older transliteration system was used in Russian. Russian, using Cyrillic letters, again needs to be transcribed into the Latin alphabet for languages such as Polish or Latvian which creates two levels of abstraction if the Russian spelling was used as the starting point—considering the history of these countries post World War II (when Kim Il-Song was contemporary) seems likely. As I mentioned above, the Latin and Korean alphabets don’t provide a perfect mapping—much worse than e.g. Latin and Cyrillic—so minor differences will occur and be carried on without there being any reason to assume a political background.

A case in point for a different script pair is the name of the last leader of the Soviet Union, rendered Gorbachev in English but Gorbatschow in German (East and West)—note the difference e versus o in the final syllable.

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    The transliteration of the Russion ё changed to 'ev' quite recently (1980s) and I am not sure whether it does not obscure the pronunciation. Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 8:08
  • @VladimirF I would be pretty sure that it obscures pronunciation but my Russian is not good enough …
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 9:43
  • It seems Russian transliteration was adopted in pro-Soviet countries (so: not in Yugoslavia). Great answer. The differences between transliteration of names are important even between related or neighbouring languages.( Russian names are differently transliterated in English, French and Romanian; but transliterating between Romanian and Bulgarian is easier, even if they use different alphabets.) I had heard of Mao Tse-tung and Zedong, but they sound similar to me, as Seong sounds to me close to Song and Sung, but not to Sen. A subjective impression surely. Also: Pekin-Beijing.
    – user8690
    Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 13:44
  • Good linguistic background to the other answer Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 15:03
  • @Jan It does: the vowel is /o/, and an /e/ would also be possible. The story here is that the Proto-Slavic */e/ changed into /o/ in late Old East Slavic (15th century), but an orthography was already in place, so it was still written as 〈е〉. A separate letter, 〈ё〉 (that’s neither a diaeresis nor an umlaut!), was proposed in mid-18th century, but its usage was and still remains haphazard except when omitting it would change the meaning. Surnames are an unfortunate casualty. Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 20:09

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