The differences between South and North Korea explained

Where is North Korea?

North Korea is a country situated next to China.  Founded in 1948, it’s been ran as a totalitarian state ever since. This means the leaders of the country have total control over the citizens and society. Currently North Korea’s ruler is Kim Jong-Un. He’s the third member of the Kim dynasty which has ruled since the country formed.

North Korea is closed off from the outside world. Citizens require permission from the government to leave the country. Foreign tourists are allowed to visit, but it’s rare for foreign journalists to be issued visas. Because of this there’s not a lot that we know for sure about this mysterious country.

We teamed up with young expert Thomas König to find out more;


Why is it called North Korea?

Map of North Korea and South Korea next to China

North Korea explained: the two countries sit next to China

Right to the south of North Korea is a country called South Korea. These two countries used to be one single country called (you guessed it) Korea.

North Korea is also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK. South Korea also goes by the Republic of Korea, or ROK.

Japan ruled Korea from 1910 up until World War II. During the conflict Russia declared war on Japan. In an agreement with the USA they occupied the north of Korea up to a geographic area called the 38th Parallel.

America then attacked Japanese forces in the south and eventually Japan surrendered.

However, Korea didn’t return to normal. Both Russia and the United States agreed to occupy Korea temporarily. This was to assist in the creation of a free and independent Korean government. Russia occupied the north of the country with the USA in the south. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.


Communism Vs. Democracy

North Korea Explained: U.S. Marines engaged in urban warfare during the battle for Seoul in late September 1950. The Marines are armed with an M1 rifle and an M1918 Browning ..

North Korea explained: soldiers fighting in the Korean War

Political disagreements between Russia and the USA delayed the formation of a Korean government.

Back then Russia favoured Communism. This political system means that all means of production are owned by the community rather than by individuals (in theory at least). Communist states are often run as single party states. One single political party runs the country.  Other  parties are either banned or only allowed minor participation in elections.

Just as it is today, America was ran as a Democracy. This system of government gives power to the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives. Many political parties take part in elections – the more the merrier.

America and the West also favour a political system called Capitalism. Put simply: trade, industry and the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit.


North Korea and South Korea split by the DMZ  on a map

North Korea Explained: the demilitarized zone (DMZ) splits the two countries

These tensions between Russia and America meant that by 1948 there was still no Korean government for the entire country. Two separate governments formed in the north and south of Korea.

Unsurprisingly they took on the political ideas of their occupiers. North Korea followed Russia and adopted a Communist style system. The pro-US South Korea favoured a democratic approach. However it was 1987 before a multi-political party system was fully established. Guess these things take time.

Both opposing sides saw themselves as the legitimate government for the entire country. In 1950 North Korea invaded the South, sparking the three-year Korean War. Technically the two countries are still at war; a peace treaty was never signed. However, the 1953 Armistice Agreement between the countries meant that hostilities ceased.

Since then North and South Korea are both separated by a “De-militarised Zone” or DMZ. “De-militarised” doesn’t mean they’ve got rid of all the weapons there. The 4KM wide DMZ is the most heavily militarised border in the world. Crossing it is not permitted.


Potential for peace?

North Korean soldiers marching

North Korea’s nuclear and military ambitions worry the rest of the world

North Korea has isolated itself from the rest of the world. After the Korean War the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung promoted the philosophy of Juche. This means self-reliance. The West views North Korea with suspicion due to its policy of isolation and it’s unclear foreign policy.

Western countries also take issue with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

In 2006 North Korea announced it had tested a nuclear bomb. This was despite having joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the 1980s. Similar announcements followed in 2009 and 2013.

It’s thought North Korea doesn’t have the technology to launch the bomb as missile. That didn’t stop the rest of the world going “Oh, s%$t!” and hammering North Korea with lots of economic sanctions.


North Korea Explained: the demilitarized zone (DMZ) splits the two countries

Skirmishes at the DMZ border are becoming more regular

In the early 1990s South Korea seemed to be trying to move on from the conflict with its neighbour. South Korea sent aid packages across to the poorer North Korea. South Korea also called for the rest of the world to end economic sanctions put on North Korea.

In 2000 both North and South agreed to work towards a potential reunification in the future. Yet in 2008 a newly elected government took a tougher line. The North’s failure to cut back on nuclear activities was a problem. In 2010 a South Korean ship sunk; investigators believe a North Korean submarine was to blame.

The relationship between the two countries has disintegrated. Increasing tensions and skirmishes at the border have put both on high alert.


What is it like in North Korea?

North Korean leader Kim Il-sung promoted the philosophy of Juche. This means self-reliance.

North Korea’s leader Kim Il-Sung and his descendants are praised in the state run media

North Korea closes itself off from the rest of the world. So it’s difficult to give a balanced and accurate picture of what life there is like.

Few citizens leave the country, and most countries advise against going to North Korea. What little we know is based on the stories of the few who manage to escape the country and those who visit it.

Charity group Liberty in North Korea reports the hardships North Korean citizens face. Leaving the country or even visiting different regions requires a government visa.

Many citizens live in poverty and North Korea has suffered a food shortage since the 1990s. Floods in the mid-1990s led to famine across the country. Bad agricultural management means North Korea relies on aid from abroad to feed people. It’s estimated around 2 million people have died due to food shortages.

Yet these poor living conditions for many in the country are not reported. Propaganda praising the government is distributed by the media controlled by the state. International news is covered but stories must be approved by the government. Radios are specifically modified to pick up government channels. They can be adapted to pick up outside channels – but it’s illegal to own a tunable radio.

Instead of the internet North Koreans have an “intranet”. This has limited access to official North Korean websites. Phones can’t make international calls.

This propaganda video is an example of North Korea’s anti-West bias. Though cleverly edited to portray the West in a certain way you could argue that some of what it says is true.

North Korea is also accused of human rights abuses. Speaking out against the regime will get you into serious trouble. Criticise the government and you risk being “disappeared” or sent to a labour camp. Human Rights Watch reports that people are routinely arrested and tortured.


North Korea Explained: Kim Jong-un

Current leader Kim Jong-Un

“Common forms of torture include sleep deprivation, beatings with iron rods or sticks, kicking and slapping, and enforced sitting or standing for hours. Guards also sexually abuse female detainees.”

Liberty in North Korea also reports that North Koreans are forced to worship the Kim family which has ruled the country for over 60 years. “Propaganda starts in nursery school and a large proportion of the curriculum for all students—even at university—is dedicated to memorizing the ‘history’ of the Kim family. State media provides a constant stream of myths about the Kims and lauds the sacrifices they supposedly make for the people.”

The current leader Kim Jong-Un demands attention as well as adoration. News agencies reported how he had his security chief killed for falling asleep in a meeting. Next time your boss bawls you out think yourself lucky it’s not him.

Negative reports haven’t stopped some people wanting to travel to North Korea. 1,500 Westerners visit each year. Business Insider reports how simple it can be to travel to the country as a tourist. Don’t expect to explore unattended: North Korea appoints special tour guides for anyone entering the country.


Is North Korea actually so bad?


North Korean village huts

Positive angle: community is strong in the North Korean villages

Positive stories about life in North Korea are scarce. Ever wishing to play devil’s advocate we did find some. NK News interviewed a North Korean Jae-Young Kim and she had this to say:

“Although media and news only show negative aspects to life in North Korea, there are actually positive and good aspects about life in the DPRK. Of course there are differences between individuals, but compared to my current life in the South, life in North was mentally rich – even if it was materially insufficient.  The reason for this is because of the pure heart and affection of North Koreans. Here, in South Korea, there are lots of people with affection, but in North Korea, especially in rural areas, affection between neighbors is very pure and deep.”

Despite having some positive memories of North Korea Jae-Young Kim is one of many who wished to travel to South Korea.


Western brand shops in Seoul, South Korea

Life in South Korea; economically stronger

Jae-Young Kim mentions that although “lectures portray the South as evil and impoverished, some North Koreans see evidence to the contrary in the form of food, fertilizers and medicines that come from the South. As a result, many North Koreans know that the South is wealthy and feel envious.”

South Korea followed other Asian countries in using exports to boost its economy. It’s now one of the highly developed Asian “Tiger” economies which grew rapidly in the last century.

It’s easy to see North Korea as the repressive regime, and South Korea as civilised and progressive.

However South Korea is not all that innocent. Al Jazeera’s People & Power recently investigated and reported on the country now being titled as Suicide Nation. Suicide in South Korea has become the fourth most common cause of death and it is most prevalent in children and young adults aged between 10 and 30. The cause: an unavoidable pressure from a “hyper-competitive society”. Unfortunately it doesn’t stop there and particularly when it comes to spreading propaganda.Whilst partaking in a military exercise South Koreans blasted out indoctrinating pop music. In the past both countries have used loudspeakers along the DMZ to blast messages towards the opposite side. Real productive, guys.

Having a democratic government is no guarantee of sensible action. It’s questionable whether South Korea’s military exercises near the border were a good idea, or whether the country is taking progression is bit too far? Who’s to say which side is right or wrong?

As well as wishing to travel to the South it’s thought that many North Koreans wish the two countries to be reunited. A poll of 100 North Koreans stated that 95 wanted to reunite the two countries. Whether this study is representative of the rest of North Korea is unclear.

However reunification is definitely high on the agenda in the South. Latest polls suggest 80% of the Southern population are interested in reuniting with the North. What’s not clear is how this would work, and what the economic impact would be if South Korea joins up with its poorer neighbour.


North Korea Learnings; calling yourself democratic doesn’t mean you live in a democracy.

How responsible are the USA and Russia for the current situation between North and South Korea? Should the two be reunited or are they better apart?