He Said/She Said: North vs. South Korea

He Said/She Said: North vs. South Korea

North and South Korea, separated almost 60 years ago by the Cold War politics of the USA and USSR, is a study in sociology.  The peninsula is home to one of the most homogenous populations (CITE) on earth, but a population that probably has one of the most disparate worldviews.  It seems to prove that nurture, not nature can really dictate action, beliefs and worldview.


Everything is perfect in North Korea.  The people are perfect.  The buildings are perfect.  The children are perfect.  Anything that is not perfect is that way because “Dear Leader” has dictated it to be so…to give the people an opportunity to improve something.

South Korea is a place of turmoil and poverty.  The Americans have occupied it since the 1950’s and installed a puppet government.  One of these days, soon, the government will fall and the North will save their brothers and sisters to the South.

That is what the North Korean government wants you to believe, that is what they show tourists, that is what the tour guides claim to believe (see some examples of North Korean propaganda here).  I’m going to let you in on a little secret: things aren’t perfect; North Korea is not a country filled with shiny happy people.  South Korea is not a country of poverty and strife, but it isn’t the inverse either.  Both countries have their challenges, their highlights, and mediocre parts.

There are many differences between the North and the South, especially in terms of wealth and worldview, but what struck me was how similar they were on the most important aspect: people.  Korea, North and South, is one of the most homogenous populations on earth according to the US State Department and other sources.  While the 60 years since the Korean War has seen a divergence between the two countries, it was due to the similarities, not the differences.  It was the Korean people that blood relatives can create both the most closed (DPRK) and open economy (South Korea) in the world.  While the differences manifest themselves in the visible results of 60 years of separation, the similarities created the conditions for this to happen.

Let me cut to the chase: Koreans are the most easily brainwashed people on earth.  This is the type of sweeping statement that English teachers hate and tend to get me in trouble, but hear me out.  South Korea is home to one of the most educated populations on earth.  Statistically they are to education what Kenyans are to long distance running, the champs.  They have accomplished this by pushing children to levels bordering on child abuse, putting the focus on national progress instead of individual accomplishment. They have done this with blind trust in their political leaders to do what is best for the country.

OK, so take a group of super educated people and have the government suggest a completely ridiculous notion: fans and air-conditioners cause death by sucking all the oxygen out of a room.  If you sleep in a room with the doors and windows closed, you will die.  The educated person, with a solid base in science should be able to reject such a stupid belief…but, they can’t, because authority said it.  “Fan death” as it is known, according to the Korea Consumer Protection Board (KCPB) is among the five most common summer seasonal injuries (source: wikipedia).  They issued this warning in 2006 along with mandating that all fans have timers to automatically turn off, prior to asphyxiating anyone.  It must be true because the government says so.

Take the blood relatives of these people and cut off all external communications.  No Internet, TV, telephones or newspapers.  Then tell them that Kim Il-sung is the world’s most respected leader.  Tell that that the country is completely self-sufficient.  Tell them that they are the greatest nation on earth.  Guess what?  People will believe it.  With the same will that South Koreans exhibit with their extreme working hours, putting children in school and tutoring to unreasonable levels, the North Koreans apply to serving their country, their leader.  With the same vigilance that South Koreans keep their windows and doors open when they sleep, the North Koreans watch for American Imperialists.

Reality is created for Koreans, by governments on both sides.  Reality is accepted by the people.  The self-less determination of Koreans demonstrate that anything is possible, applied slightly differently the people can create either North or South Korea.

A memorial commemorating the North Korean troops “liberation” of the South early in the Korean War.  It depicts that happy, unified, Koreans.


After arriving in the DPRK, the stark differences between North and South Korea were immediately obvious.  South Korea is all glitz and glam with their LED lighted bridges and skyscrapers, while North Korea is stuck in the 1950’s.  Pyongyang, the capital of NorthKorea, skyline is barely visible at night there are so few LEDs.  Superficially the two places couldn’t be more different.  Not only due to the physical appearance, but the activities of your average citizen couldn’t be farther apart.  South Koreans can be found enjoying beer, listening to their favorite music of choice and a dinner of fried chicken anytime, while North Koreans are observed by foreign tourists doing one of two things; marching in uniform or participating in mass gymnastics shows.

Being on a tour we were only allowed a limited look into the country.  However, at no time was I convinced that once our tour bus and our peering eyes were in our hotel room the North Koreans went out partying, much less were allowed to be outside at all.  It certainly seemed that the DPRK lives up to it’s title as the most regimented country in the world.  It is hard for me to find many similarities in the two countries considering I couldn’t even make decisions for myself much less would the residents be able to make decisions on their own.  If you can’t think independently you have little ability to exercise your freedom of expression.

Every person we saw in the country, looked the same, acted the same and wore the same Kim Il Sung button.  In contrast to South Korea where we interacted with artists, teachers and tour guides that acted and dressed very differently from each other.  While they might hold some of the same beliefs, everyone in South Korea didn’t wear identical uniforms or operate in the same robotic motions.  North Koreans on the other hand can only read books by Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il and all the music on offer is created to spread the revolutionary seed.  This only contributes to their weariness about visitors and their beliefs.

While South Korea may not be a tourist’s ideal vacation they are certainly more welcoming than the North Koreans, where upon landing I was subjected to a full bag search and when I left my camera was also subject to search.  South Korea wasn’t interested in the least as to what might be in my bags entering or leaving the country.  During our time in the DPRK we were accompanied by guides at all times, eating, sleeping and even using the bathroom according to their schedule.  It seems unfair to South Korea to claim that they are similar in anything but a shared landmass.

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» Bka :
Sep 17, 2011

Great insights and I guess I will have to concede, there was some benefit to your first hand reporting from No. Korea, but the Iran tourists daily strife continues to play out daily in our papers 2 years running…….a fine line between safety and unforgettable travel, he states wistfully from his BarcaLounger….love you guys……bka

LOCAVORista Reply:

Dad, glad to hear that the first hand reporting from countries like North Korea is interesting for you in your BarcaLounger… ha ha. We have lots more posts coming on North Korea, it’s just figuring out how to explain a place so different from anything else we’ve seen thus far.

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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