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What is the difference between these words when used to mean "to break (something)"? Can they be used interchangeably?

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I don't think they are the same.

In Naver dictionary, it explains 부수다 like this:

  단단한 물체를 여러 조각이 나게 두드려 깨뜨리다.

Which means the object that you break has to be hard enough, i.e. not sth like glass which is easily broken.

P.s. This is only an explanation from the dictionary. It may be deviated from actual usage, namely, natives don't really differentiate them.

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  • A native Korean I just asked didn't seem to recognize this distinction - not to say they are 'right', just a data point. – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 1 '16 at 9:45
  • @topo morto That's why I have the p.s. there – Incredibly HandSome Samuel Dec 1 '16 at 10:08
  • Yes, your p.s. is why I asked them! :) – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 1 '16 at 10:36
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I'm not 100% sure, but I think 깨다 emphasizes that something hard is broken into multiple pieces, while 부수다 emphasizes that something is broken so that it is no longer functional.

Here are some examples I found from Googling:

자연환경을 지키는 개발을 해야 한다. 훼손하고 부수는 개발은 옳지 않다.

산소절단기로 공장 금고 부수고 7천만원 털어가

검거 과정에서 운전석 쪽 유리를 깨던 경찰관이 경미한 상처를 입었을 뿐, 다행히 다친 사람은 없었다.

지붕 기와를 깨면서 서까래에 붙은 불을 끄느라 화재 완전 진압이 늦어지고 있다.

Well, even here, I think 깨다/부수다 could be exchanged except for the first sentence (where 부수다 is more like "destroy").

Also, there are a bunch of idiomatic expressions using 깨다 where you can't use 부수다: 기록을 깨다, 규칙을 깨다, 금기를 깨다, 저주를 깨다, 침묵을 깨다, 틀을 깨다 (meaning "break a preconception = think out of the box"), etc.

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