The Korean peninsula was once one country; then a conflict carved it down the middle and created two nations divided by their rulers’ opposing ideologies. Almost 70 years on, how different are North and South Korea?
“I used to think we were all one people with the same language and lots in common. That’s why I left North Korea. But then I realized that everything is different here,” says Ka-yeon in our Life Links episode #WhoAmI. Ka-yeon fled the crippling poverty of her home nation for a better life in South Korea. But now she feels caught between two worlds. Despite many similarities, the two sides of the Korean peninsula are poles apart.
A little history - how the split happened
In the last days of World War Two, when it became clear Japan would surrender to the Allied powers, the question of what would happen to Korea became louder than ever. After decades of occupying the Korean peninsula, Japan had retreated. The United States and Soviet Union agreed to divide Korea at the 38th parallel in August 1945, with the US taking the southern part and the Soviet Union the north.
The plan was to hand back control to the Koreans and withdraw, and in 1948 several attempts were made at getting the nations to vote for reunification.
But the distrust engendered by a few years of opposing ideologies had grown too deep. What started as an almost "accidental division" gave rise to one of the most hostile and heavily militarized borders in the world, and split one people in two.
Human rights, personal liberty and falling out with the West
Nowadays, North Korea is a Stalinist state and keeps between 80,000 and 120,000 state prisoners, most of whom are held for political, not criminal, offenses. In a 2011 report the US State Department stated “systematic and severe human rights abuses occurred” in North Korea’s prisons.
North Korea received the lowest press freedom score on the 2013 press freedom index and is seen as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International’s 2014 corruption perception index. Its nuclear programme is also a concern for South Korea and western nations.
The border that separates both countries is said to be one of the most dangerous and heavily militarized in the world
Life in South Korea is fuelled by an unashamedly loud and proud style of capitalism. The country is also officially a constitutional democracy. However, it does have its own political prisoners. South Korea’s controversial National Security Law makes it an offense to express sympathies with North Korea; the government even kicked out a foreign national for ‘aiding North Korea’ just this month.
But South Korea ranks as far less corrupt than its northern neighbour. And it’s a key ally for western powers - particularly the United States, which still carries out military drills there.
The size divide, and suicides
Despite a similar geographical size, South Korea’s population (49 million) is almost twice as large as North Korea’s (25 million).
Due to the poor diet of North Koreans, people there tend to be smaller than South Koreans. This is most visible among school children. Daniel Schwekendiek from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul estimated the height difference to be “approximately 4 cm (1.6 in) among pre-school boys and 3 cm (1.2 in) among pre-school girls.”
The difference in life expectancy is similarly large: while South Koreans on average live to the ripe old age of 79, North Koreans die ten years younger at 69.
It may come as a surprise for some that both countries have severe problems with suicide.
In South Korea, weddings are momentous occasions: people tend to splurge on dresses, venues and honeymoons
South Korea has seen the most suicides in the “industrialized world for eight consecutive years” with 14,160 suicides in 2012.
One North Korean refugee, Shin Dong-Hyuk, has expressed his bewilderment at these cases. In the documentary “Camp 14”, Dong-Hyuk said he had never heard of a suicide taking place in his notorious prison camp, while an average of 39 people choose to die every day in South Korea. “They have everything. They have food, clothing, a home and still kill themselves!”, he said.
K-pop, rice cakes and banned mini skirts
North and South Koreans enjoy many of the same types of food, as recipes were passed on from generation to generation long before the divide. For instance, Dduk (ricecake) and Yeot (a type of confectionary) are eaten by all students before exams and are said to bring them luck.
Cultural celebrations are similarly deeply ingrained in Korean society on both sides of the border. Some of the most important dates are New Years Day, Thanksgiving Day and Daeboreum - the day of the year’s first full-moon. New Year’s Day is traditionally celebrated with a bowl of Ddukguk (rice cake soup).
Parents are also served food by their children and addressed with polite titles, regardless of where they live in Korea.
But cultural differences now clearly outweigh the similarities.
The success of “K-Pop” music prompted US network CNN to declare South Korea the “Hollywood of the East”
South Korea is said to have turned into the Hollywood of the East, “churning out entertainment that is coveted by millions of fans stretching from Japan to Indonesia”. There are about 400 independent studios producing content for the entertainment market, helping South Korea to export its special brand of pop music (“K-pop”), television dramas and video games to countries across Asia.
As for North Korea’s hit records...well you just need to take a look at the charts.
Things look similarly polarised on the fashion front. North Koreans refrain from experimenting because the government strictly bans skinny jeans, mini skirts and even particular hairstyles, while their southern neighbours are free to don whatever outfit takes their fancy.
From daring mini skirts to something borrowed, something blue: weddings also look decisively different. Couples in South Korea may splurge on a beautiful dress for the bride, a glitzy ceremony and a spectacular honeymoon, while those tying the knot in North Korea tend to take a simpler approach all round, usually celebrating in a restaurant or at home.
Religion and wifi tourism
Due to its Communist worldview, the North is officially atheist. However new movements like Cheondoism are gaining in popularity.
In the South, Protestantism and Catholicism have won many new followers in past decades, their ranks swelled by Christians from North Korea who have fled persecution.
South Korea’s capital, Seoul: North Korean refugees are often overwhelmed by the opportunities, wealth and culture there
As for the modern-day “religion” of the internet, its influence is unbounded and users’ access unhindered in South Korea, where 81 out of 100 people were online in 2012.
In the north, only members of public and educational services are allowed to surf the world wide web - and then only under strict controls. One phenomenon occurring as a result is wifi tourism: North Koreans buying properties close to foreign embassies in a bid to access their wifi. Housing prices in Pyongyang have shot up as a result.
North Korea does have its own intranet, called Kwangmyong. It’s not connected to the rest of the world and was primarily built to browse fan pages of the leading Kim dynasty, North Korea’s ruling party.
Will reunification ever be on the cards?
Both Koreas were in “high-level” talks in early October, but the details haven’t been disclosed.
Sue Mi Terry, research scholar at Columbia University’s East Asian Institute, thinks a reunification would turn Korea into the “Germany of Asia”.
South Korea’s finance ministry claimed it would cost $80 billion every year for at least ten years, but the long-term economic and educational benefits may still outweigh financial losses.
For Ka-yeon, the thought of reunification - of one day being able to share Korean traditions with her family again - is what keeps her alive.