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Korean History:

Effects on Modern Differences Between the North and the South

Lea Sampsell

Tallwood High School Global Studies and World Languages Academy

Instructor: Gregory Falls

December 2016


In a globalizing world, positive relations within Asia as well as between Asian and

Western countries are essential for economic and diplomatic success. Twentieth century world

history has led to a significant level of development within many Asian countries while leaving

others impoverished and nearly irrelevant on the world stage. The Korean Peninsula provides

one of the most notable examples of this concept, all within a single region of land that makes

up an extremely small portion of Asia yet contains both its third largest economy and one of the

smallest economies on the planet. Though many individuals in the United States and other

Western countries understand the basic differences between North and South Korea, few are

well-versed in the history that led to these changes despite the impacts that the differences have

made in world history as a whole and even in the daily lives of ordinary citizens worldwide.

This paper explores how the single unified and underdeveloped country that existed on

the Korean Peninsula for millennia changed in the twentieth century to become two nations that

are currently polar opposites of one another. The utilized research has been sourced from

pre-existing scholarly journals, articles, personal accounts, and databases to form a final product

that compiles information and ideas from well-respected individuals, including but not limited

to journalists, professors, authors, and economic experts.


Table of Contents

Cover Page 1

Abstract 2

Table of Contents 3

Introduction 4

Literature Review 5

Limitations 9

Discussion: The Basic History of Twentieth Century Korea 10

Discussion: Lasting Cultural Similarities 14

Discussion: Economic Differences 14

Discussion: Cultural Differences 18

Discussion: Factors of Change 20

Discussion: The Future 22

Conclusion 23

References 24

Appendix A: Interview Transcript 27

Appendix B: Visualizing the Differences 29



History has the power to leave scars on the world that never fully heal and can

permanently alter its future. This rings true quite strongly for the Korean Peninsula, a small

region in the heart of East Asia that has seen its share of disaster and change. From a global

perspective, the Korean Peninsula has been historically overlooked. Caught in the middle of

frequent brawls and ventures of the surrounding powers for centuries, Korea did not even begin

to gain relevance in the Western world before the Korean War. However, this area has a

stronger influence on the modern world than the average individual may realize, and the two

nations of North Korea and South Korea impact the world in vastly different ways from one

another despite their close geographical proximity.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Korean Peninsula shifted from consisting of one

unified nation to two entirely separate powers. Though they remained similar for many years

and continue to share a language and some traditions, the two nations have essentially

developed into separate planets. South Korea has made its way into the global market,

becoming an economic powerhouse and one of the Four Asian Tigers, and its modern popular

culture is well known throughout other Asian countries as well as the Western world. While

South Korea has developed, North Korea has regressed into one of the least developed and most

mysterious countries in the world, boasting virtually no economy or outside contact, aside from

the occasional threat of a nuclear attack on a prominent developed nation. In the present and

future of the globalized world, these essential changes must be fully understood, especially in
regards to how this unique situation developed in such a short period of time. While the Korean

Peninsula has experienced centuries of rich tradition and culture, its twentieth century history

has singlehandedly shaped the modern cultural and economic differences between the north and

south, especially considering South Koreas rapid development and globalization coinciding

with North Koreas descent into unfathomable poverty and isolation.

Literature Review

Chang Semoon, a South Korea and United States-educated economic expert, outlines

major events in inter-Korean economic history from about 1972 to 2010 in his Economic

Cooperation Between the Two Koreas, as published in the North Korean Review. The writing

focuses majorly upon efforts to restore economic cooperation between the two nations, such as

the 1972 South North Joint Communique, which focused on efforts to reunify as a single nation

and foster economic, social, and cultural exchanges without any outside influence. It also

discusses the origin of North Koreas development of a nuclear program beginning in about

1989 as well as the efforts on behalf of the United States, South Korea, and Japan in 1994 to

limit this development through the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization

(KEDO). The article reiterates the lack of success for these efforts toward improvement, as

caused by lack of cooperation from North Korea due to its nuclear development, firing of

missiles, attacks on South Korean ships and tourists, etc. It takes the stance that none of the

cooperation efforts were meaningful prior to the introduction of the Sunshine Policy in 1998,

introduced by then president Kim Dae-jung. The author does not specifically address what led
to the divisions between North Korea and South Korea, but rather describes the actions that

have been taken between the two countries since the late twentieth century.

Curry, a professor of economics (and Asian Economic Development) in California and

Hawaii, wrote A Role for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in North Koreas

Transformation as a product of an APEC summit that took place in Honolulu in 2011. The

paper addresses North Koreas economic role in the Asia-Pacific area and how it interacts with

surrounding nations. In addition, it describes how this economic role has impacted North

Korean society. Currys general opinion of the situation is that membership in APEC would be

beneficial for North Korea, but could come with an element of risk for the other member states.

He discusses North Koreas extremely low levels of per capita income and human development

and extremely high levels of poverty and isolation, as well as the dominance of the military

within the region.

Economic Integration, External Forces and Political Cooperation Between South and

North Korea in the UNGA was authored by three professors and published in the North

Korean Review in 2014. The authors are professors of political science and ethics, all of Korean

background. Their writing is generally focused on the economic integration between North

Korea and South Korea and whether or not this would be beneficial. They make a strong effort

to address multiple perspectives on this topic, referring to both the belief that economic

integration encourages compromise and negotiation and the belief that the economic

relationship does not necessarily encourage better relations outside of that sphere. This work

also echoes the words of other sources, referring to military tensions between the north and the
south and the lack of a formal economic agreement between the end of the Korean War and the

1980s. It also asserts that the economic relationship between North Korea and South Korea

relies heavily upon actions taken by foreign countries such as China and the United States.

Additionally, South Korea is listed as North Koreas second largest trading partner.

South Koreas Economy Booming with Cheap Labor is a historical primary source

document from 1970 that was published in the New York Times. It provides valuable insight

regarding the origin of South Korea's rise to economic power. The source describes the side of

South Korea history that is not widely known and speaks volumes about the work ethic of South

Korean citizens during this time as they worked in horrible conditions to bring vitality to the

nation's economy.

The Guardian published a visual representation of the differences between North Korea

and South Korea in a wide variety of areas in the article South v North Korea: How do the

Two Countries Compare? The data is relatively recent, mostly based on information from 2008

to 2013. The visual model shows the significant contrast between the two nations and highlights

the fact that in many respects, the countries are quite nearly polar opposites of one another.

North Koreas population is less than half of that of South Korea. Despite North Koreas major

focus on the military, South Korea spends over three times as much money on military.

However, North Koreas military expenditure in 2008 as a percentage of GDP was almost eight

times as high as that of South Korea. Additionally, North Koreas infant mortality rate was over

six times higher than the Souths, the life expectancy is over ten years lower, and the GDP is

eighteen times lower. South Koreas press freedom ranking was fiftieth in 2013, while North
Koreas was one hundred seventy-eighth. Nearly all South Koreans use Internet, while virtually

no North Koreans do.

NK News regularly publishes articles based on information from defectors from North

Korea. In the article Top 5 Similarities Between North and South Korea, a defector describes

aspects of North Korean culture (such as food and marriage) that differ slightly from the same

aspects in South Korean society, but have remained unchanged in other respects despite the two

countries many divisions.

Asia Societys Korean History and Political Geography discusses Korean history and

begins as far in the past as the fourth century BCE. As for the nineteenth century, it provides

extensive details about the brutality of Japanese imperial rule, but also asserts that this

colonialism was responsible for the beginnings of Korean industrial development. The northern

Korean Peninsula is specified as a center of coal and hydroelectric power resources during this

time. This article also describes the end of Japanese rule, the different players in the Korean

War, and the splitting of the Korean Peninsula into its two countries. One section discusses the

Korean Peninsula since 1953 in regards to how the common cultural and historical base of

North Korea and South Korea did not prevent the two nations from evolving into completely

different regions. It outlines the different factors that caused the divide to be so significant,

including South Koreas involvement with the United States and North Koreas involvement

with Soviet and Chinese culture and politics. Reunification possibilities are described as distant

and unforeseeable.
A final noteworthy source is DWs North and South Korea: How Different Are They?

The article comes from a German international broadcasting website and discusses a brief

history of split between the Koreas before entering a discussion about their major modern

cultural differences. The article addresses differences in fashion, music, government corruption,

weddings, holidays, and religion, asserting that only a few similarities remain. It also reaffirms

that unification, though a dream of many Koreans, is not a major possibility in the near future.


This research on the Korean Peninsula was limited in several ways. The most significant

limitation was the lack of information and knowledge about North Korea as a whole due to its

extreme isolation from the rest of the world. Though it is possible to contact individuals that

have defected from North Korea, it is difficult. It is typically even more difficult, if not

impossible, to contact individuals still currently living in North Korea. Few primary sources

from North Korean modern history are accessible. South Korea is on the opposite end of the

spectrum and has become opened up to the rest of the world, so its data is far more accessible

and accurate. This can create a lack of consistency regarding comparisons in statistical

information between North Korea and South Korea. When information is obtained from North

Korea, it can rarely be fact checked, and sources often contradict or challenge one another.

Expert information on inter-Korean affairs generally comes from South Korea or a non-Korean

nation, but rarely to never does it come from North Korea.

Much of the information needed to produce a fully accurate final product in regards to

this topic is based on history, much of which has not been recorded entirely. The twentieth

century was a time of technological innovation, but was not advanced enough to record all

history as accurately as is possible in the developed world today. Additionally, the paper

focuses on the history of the Korean Peninsula, which may include historical information from

other regions or nations, but the context within world history is not addressed in full.

Since North Koreas modern state is believed to not have changed much in the past

several decades, its cultural elements are relatively stable. South Korea, however, has grown

and changed dramatically in recent times, so its cultural elements cannot always be specifically

defined as modern, and it is not always possible to determine whether or not the root cause of

a difference between North Korean and South Korean cultures has truly resulted from their

common twentieth century history.

Finally, personal identity and experiences may have played a role in the limitations of

the research. The author is not of Korean background. Bias may exist due to the authors

experience traveling and living in South Korea. No ties, direct or indirect, exist between the

author and North Korea.


The Basic History of Twentieth Century Korea

Historically, the Korean Peninsula has been described as a shrimp among whales; the

small country has long felt the consequences of other powers ventures and skirmishes. The
close of the nineteenth century was no exception. During the final twenty-five years of the

nineteenth century, Japan, China, and Russia competed for influence over Korea. Between 1895

and 1905, Japan emerged victorious and began a period of harsh colonial rule that lasted from

1910 through the end of World War II (Armstrong; Oh, J. & Oh, B., 2016).

Japanese rule in Korea was strict and brutal. During the first ten years, the Japanese

ruled directly through the military, crushing any Korean opposition (Korea as a Colony) and

committing large-scale murder, torture, and rape (Korea, 2004). The colonizing country

attempted to make Korea linguistically and culturally Japanese, even encouraging many

Koreans to adopt Japanese surnames in 1939 (Armstrong). The period of Japanese colonial rule

is viewed by most Koreans as a dark time in history, but it also sparked major development on

the Korean Peninsula in areas of infrastructure, education, and the economy.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Japanese initiated industrial development through steel,

cement, and chemical plants throughout Korea, especially in the northern part of the peninsula,

part of modern North Korea (Armstrong). The industrialization efforts were intended to benefit

the Japanese as they continued to fight wars in China and the Pacific (Korea as a Colony), but

successfully industrialized Korea to the point that it was one of the most industrialized countries

in Asia by the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945, second only to Japan itself (Armstrong).

Japan also managed to modernize the Korean education system, improve public health, and

develop infrastructure and technology in terms of roads, communications, and farming

techniques (Korea, 2004; Economic). Alongside urban growth also emerged Koreas first
form of mass culture through media such as radio and cinema, contributing greatly to the social

atmosphere of Korea during that time (Korea as a Colony).

Korea became free from colonial rule in 1945 after Japan was defeated in World War II,

but was then divided into two separate parts, the predecessors of the modern Republic of Korea

(south) and Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (north) (Oh, J. & Oh, B., 2016). The United

States and USSR had agreed to jointly accept Japanese surrender in the final days of World War

II and agreed that until a unified Korean government could be developed, the United States

would occupy Korea south of the thirty-eighth parallel, while the USSR would occupy Korea

north of the thirty-eighth parallel. However, this led to the development of two separate

governments on the Korean Peninsula by 1948, one pro-United States and one pro-Soviet, and

each claimed to legitimately represent all Korean people (Armstrong).

At the end of World War II, Korean people on every end of the political spectrum

favored a unified Korean government, leader Kim Il-sung of the norths Korean Workers

Party being no exception (Korea as a Colony & History). In an effort to enact this

single-government unification, North Korean forces invaded South Korea in 1950, initiating the

bloody Korean War that lasted through 1953. The two countries currently remain at a ceasefire,

as no permanent peace treaty was signed to officially end the war (Oh, J. & Oh, B., 2016). Out

of belief that the countrys split was imposed forcefully by outside actors, most Korean people,

more noticeably in the South, traditionally have and continue to believe that the two countries

must try to reunify in the future (Armstrong). However, this proved to be far easier said than

done during the decades following the Korean War. Due to Cold War tensions between the
United States and the Soviet Union, the demilitarized zone separating North Korea and South

Korea remained in place, causing the two geographically close nations to grow even more

distant from one another (History). As early as the very emergence of the issue, efforts

between North and South Korea to reunify have been heavily influenced by outside powers.

Even today, players such as the United States and China play a major role in cooperation efforts

(Hwang, Oh, H., & Kim., 2014).

Few major cooperation efforts were made between the two Koreas prior to 1972, with

the introduction of the South North Joint Communique. This agreement was developed by

North and South Korea with the goal of promoting cooperation between the two sides that

would eventually lead to reunification; they especially hoped to accomplish this without

external interference. In the 1980s, the North and South began to pursue economic cooperation,

but this was relatively unsuccessful prior to the introduction of the Sunshine Policy by then

president Kim Dae-jung in 1998. The major goal of the Sunshine Policy was to improve

relations between the Koreas through unconditional aid from the South to the North as well as

economic and diplomatic cooperation, but its few successes were short-lived and not greatly

influential. The major barriers to positive relations between the Koreas have been connected to

North Koreas lack of willingness to cooperate economically or diplomatically, as well as their

tendency throughout the 1980s and beyond to attack South Korean people and property. For

example, North Korean agents killed four South Korean cabinet members in Burma in 1983 and

shot down a Korean Air flight to Bangkok in 1987. Similar attacks have continued; as recently

as 2008, a South Korean tourist was shot in North Korea without reasonable explanation or
evidence, and in 2010, North Korean forces sunk a South Korean Navy ship. These issues have

also been heightened by the Norths ongoing development of a nuclear program, which began in

1989, around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union (Chang, 2012).

Lasting Cultural Similarities

Korean culture emphasizes the importance of tradition. Despite the major differences

that have developed between North Korea and South Korea, some cultural similarities remain.

Most of these similarities are related to the common history and culture of the region prior to

the twentieth century. For example, while variations exist due to differences in region and

dialect, Korean language is essentially the same in both North Korea and South Korea. The

types of foods eaten in both countries are quite similar, including kimchi and other spicy dishes,

as are traditional holiday and festival celebrations (Bajpai, 2015). Cultural aspects such as high

reverence for ones elders and an emphasis on hierarchy and respect remain prominent through

both nations, as do elements of patriarchy. Beyond fundamental cultural characteristics,

however, the countries are drastically different from one another, and ...the more that South

Korea becomes globalized and North Korea remains largely isolated, these similarities become

less important (Feffer, 2016).

Economic Differences

Interestingly, North Koreans enjoyed a higher standard of living than South Koreans at

the end of Japanese colonial rule due to the concentration of industrial centers in the northern
portion of the peninsula (Economic). This higher standard of living increased confidence in

North Korean leaders that an invasion of South Korea would be successful in unifying the

nation, therefore causing them to initiate the Korean War in 1950 (Economic). The idea of

North Korean peoples welfare exceeding that of their South Korean counterparts is

unimaginable in the modern world, where North Koreas economy is one of the worlds poorest

and its per capita income and human development indices are among the lowest in the world

(Curry, 2013). North Koreas dependence on China as a trading partner has increased

dramatically since 2001, according to Dr. Semoon Chang (2012), a professor of economics and

writer for the North Korean Review. In 2009, 64.7 percent of North Korean exports were to

China, and 77.5 percent of imports were from China. In the words of the Asian Economic

Development professor Robert L. Curry, Jr., North Korea threatens regional peace and security

due to its aggressive strategies and tactics associated with its nuclear program (2013), which

has created foreign nations hesitation to interact with it, economically or otherwise.

Neighboring nations have imposed economic sanctions on North Korea over the past

several decades. For example, Japan banned all North Korean imports in 2006 (Chang, 2012).

North Korea defaulted on its foreign loans borrowed for military use in the 1970s, which has

further discouraged foreign investment in its economy. Additionally, the countrys

self-imposed isolation made it difficult for it to benefit from the advanced technologies of the

developed world through trade and foreign investment (Economic).

South Korea, along with many other countries, has imposed several sanctions on North

Korea in the past, but currently stands as its second largest trading partner next to China.
Promotion of economic interdependence between North Korea and South Korea could

encourage better relations and avoidance of any threats to the partnership, and South Korea has

remained relatively open to pursuing such relationships (Chang, 2012; Hwang, Oh, H., & Kim,

2014). Frequent interactions can also increase common knowledge, understanding, and interest

on various issues (Chang, 2012; Hwang, Oh, H., & Kim, 2014). In terms of domestic

commerce, North Korea has a strict command economy with virtually no private sector

(Armstrong). In 2011, its gross domestic product per capita was a mere $1,800, with $4.71

billion in exports and $4 billion in imports. 22.3 percent of the gross domestic product, or about

$8.21 billion, was used on military spending (Rogers & McCormick, 2013).

From 1953 to the 1970s, the living standard for North Koreans remained comparatively

higher than that of many South Koreans, and some historians considered it a successful state.

However, quality of life stagnated in the 1980s and began to decline significantly. Its economy

essentially collapsed with the fall of the USSR in 1991, especially due to North Koreas long

dependence on the USSR for aid. Mismanagement of agriculture and the environment severely

decreased crop yields from that point on, causing vulnerability to extreme weather and natural

disasters. After North Korean supreme leader Kim Il-sung died in 1994, he was succeeded by

his son, Kim Jong-il. The country was in the midst of economic failure, extreme famine, and a

lack of allies upon the change of leadership, yet many North Koreans blamed Kim Jong-ils

leadership and militaristic strategies for the problems that killed roughly five percent of the

North Korean population in the late 1990s (History); any resistance to Kim Jong-ils new

regime was presumably visible only within the private sphere of North Koreans daily lives.
This severe economic decline left the countrys survival heavily reliant on aid contributions

from China and the United Nations (Bajpai, 2015).

In the midst of famine within North Korea, many of its citizens took extreme measures

to survive. Small illegal markets developed; others gained income or means of survival through

prostitution and other criminal acts (History). Today, it is evident that wealth is increasing for

the elite within North Korea. Capitalism appears to be expanding, likely surviving due to

bribery of authorities (Hamilton, 2016). However, the economy is still extremely isolated and

continues to exist under the tight grip of the North Korean government.

Despite the industrialization brought upon Korea by Japanese colonial rule, Korea

remained extremely poor by the end of World War II. Following the initial development of

South Koreas government in 1948, policymakers attempted to promote the development of

privately owned domestic firms. Such efforts were not highly successful and led to less

efficiency and lower standards of living (Economic). Rapid industrialization of South Korea

did not begin until the 1960s (Armstrong). By 1970, cheap labor was abundant, factories

operated twenty-four hours a day, and the economy was growing significantly. South Korea

possessed the economically valuable asset of citizens that were willing to work in extremely

poor conditions for little pay, giving them a comparative advantage within the region. Women

typically received earnings of about thirty-two dollars per month, while men received about

forty-eight. The country shifted from virtually no exports in 1960 to shipping $30 million in

processed wood alone in 1970. Gross national product rose from $2.3 billion to $6.1 billion
between 1959 and 1969 and grew annually by 12.6 percent between 1965 and 1970 (Shabecoff,


South Koreas most essential economic gains occurred during the 1970s and 1980s,

leading it to its modern role as the third largest economy in Asia behind China and Japan

(Armstrong). The government was strongly regulatory of the South Korean economy prior to

1979, but the assassination of President Park Chung-hee led to efforts to deregulate due to the

resulting shift in political leadership. The Southeast Asian Economic Crisis of 1997 later

prompted major reforms within the South Korean economy (Economic). Its 2012 per capita

GDP stood at $32,400 with $552.6 billion in exports and $514.2 billion in imports.

Cultural Differences

North Korea is well-known for its total isolation from the outside world. Many

individuals have described North Korean culture as reflective of twentieth century Communism.

Juche is an essential component of the North Korean political and economic ideology,

meaning that in theory, the North Korean state should be entirely self-sufficient. The North

Korean political scene has been heavily influenced by Soviet culture and contains some

elements of Chinese politics as well (Armstrong). The concept of songun, literally meaning

military first, is extremely prominent in North Korea and is responsible for its focus on

developing a militaristic state (Bajpai, 2015). The country also operates under a system known

as songbun in which the entire population is sorted into social classes based on their

perceived level of loyalty to the North Korean state. This ranking dictates education,
occupation, and area of residency. Free speech is punishable by imprisonment or death, and

there is presumably little trust within the private sphere considering the fact that North Korean

citizens are encouraged to report friends and family for opposing the state in any way. Should a

North Korean be arrested, up to three generations of his or her family can also be sentenced to a

life in a political prison camp (History).

Other than the information that the state determines should be viewed by the general

public of North Korea, the citizens are disconnected from free flow of information from both

internal and external origins. The country has its own intranet by the name of Kwangmyong, but

less than 0.1 percent of the population has any form of internet access at all. In 2013, its press

freedom index rating was one hundred seventy-eighth (Schmitt, 2014; Rogers & McCormick,

2013). The countrys rules are clearly strict, even extending to the sphere of personal clothing

choice. Clothing and style are limited by the government, typically taking on a plain appearance

(Schmitt, 2014). Though Pyongyang was a center of Christianity and Western culture during

Japanese occupation, all forms of Western culture or religion have been banned by the

government. The country is officially atheist, and some Christians have been persecuted for

their beliefs (Schmitt, 2014; History).

In sharp contrast with North Korean culture, the culture of South Korea boasts a

democratic and capitalistic society. Its 2013 press freedom index ranking was fiftieth, or one

hundred twenty-eight spots higher than North Koreas, and 81.5 percent of the population uses

the internet (Rogers & McCormick, 2013). South Korean people value having a voice in politics

(Oh, J. & Oh, B., 2016), especially considering that their democracy was difficult to achieve
and has undergone serious hardships as recently as the 1980s. The country operated under a

military dictatorship during the 1980s and has not always been as democratic as it has claimed

to be, but significant improvements in the government system have since been made


South Koreas culture varies slightly by region. These variations can be traced all the

way back to the Three Kingdoms period (prior to Japanese colonial rule), but are associated

most significantly with the rapid industrialization that began in the 1960s. Korean culture as a

whole is relatively uniform throughout the country, and Koreans have a strong sense of national

pride (Armstrong). Though its celebrations tend to have the same roots as those in North Korea,

they tend to be far more festive and elaborate in South Korea due to the larger availability of

resources and higher level of wealth (Bajpai, 2015).

South Korea has been influenced by Western culture far more dramatically than has

North Korea. The country offers freedom of religion, and a significant portion of the population

identifies as Protestant or Catholic. Additionally, South Koreans are free to express themselves

through clothing or style without restraint. South Korean popular culture has become well

known worldwide, especially in areas of music, television, clothing, and video games.

Factors of Change

Though the differences between North Korean and South Korean economies and

cultures have developed over time in a variety of complex ways, the most prominent factors that

sparked these changes are identifiable. Most of the differences appear to have resulted from
external interference, especially after the end of Japanese colonial rule. Though Japanese rule

was responsible for altering Korean economics and culture, it did not have significant impacts

on either of the two parts of the peninsula alone. The evidence that external players have been

critical in these changes can be found in the way that the current governments are structured.

The people of the unified Korean Peninsula were not greatly different from one another in terms

of background or political ideology, but became encompassed in the reign of two vastly

different sides of the political spectrum - democracy and Communism. South Korea grew on

the shoulders of the colonial achievement (Economic) because its environment equipped it to

do so when it was backed by the United States and other democratic powers. North Korea,

however, was built upon the ideals of another government known for exploiting its people and

developing a failed system much like that which is visible today within the modern North


In spite of South Koreas emerging economic development in the 1970s, North and

South Korea remained relatively similar through the Cold War in that both economies were

controlled by the government and existed politically under authoritarian regimes. Though

Koreans on both sides would have likely preferred to reunite following the Korean War, the

opposing political ideologies drove the two countries apart. The fundamental aspects of the

Cold War itself were responsible for driving the polarizing changes between the two Koreas

(Feffer, 2016).

The cultures of the two nations are also deeply reflective of their economic systems.

North Koreas economy has been a failure under tight government control, and its culture has
therefore become oppressive and lost some of its traditional values. South Korea, on the other

hand, has developed a highly successful and unrestrained economic system; similarly, their

culture has become one of success and little restraint.

The Future

Prospects of reunification appear to become more unrealistic as time progresses. When

the two nations of North Korea and South Korea were still relatively similar in terms of

economics and culture (perhaps in the 1950s), reunification would not have been especially

difficult, but in modern times, it poses to be extremely difficult if not impossible to create one

truly unified country. Most South Koreans want to reunify, especially within older generations;

North Korean public opinion on the subject cannot be adequately collected. According to a

single study on one hundred North Korean workers temporarily visiting China, most North

Koreans do want to reunify, especially for North Korean economic and personal benefits, but

also recognize the barriers to doing so; additionally, these views are not necessarily

representative of the North Korean general public (Feffer, 2015). However, the South Korean

finance ministry has claimed that it would cost $80 billion per year for at least ten years to

reunify the nations (Schmitt, 2014). Even if the economic and educational sectors could benefit

in the long term, the price in the short term is steep and controversial.

It has been reported that potentially trillion of dollars worth of untapped natural

resources exist within North Korea, and Russia and China have expressed interest in investment

(Bajpai, 2015). This prospect remains mysterious, but could have important implications for the
North Korean economy and foreign relations endeavors in the future. North Korea is a relatively

small country; [a]side from its nuclear weapons program, it doesn't have much impact on

international politics, but could gain a larger role in the international community should the

access to abundant natural resources be utilized in the future (Feffer, 2016).


Research has clearly shown that each Korea that exists today has become an entity

entirely separate from the form embodied just a century ago. North and South Korea are

separated by vast differences; one nation thrives while the other languishes, and the binding

force of a common history has proven insufficient in guaranteeing any warmth between the two

nations of the same family.

While reunification was once both ideal and easily achievable, North and South Korea

are currently far too different economically, culturally, politically, and socially to be reunified

without serious investment. With every investment comes risk, rendering the distant possibility

of reunification a highly controversial subject. The future of North Korea is deeply uncertain,

while that of South Korea appears bright. Without revolutionary changes, the gap between the

two is likely to deepen as time progresses.



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Appendix A: Interview Transcript

The following interview was conducted by the author via email with John Feffer, director of

Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies as well as author and contributor to

The Huffington Post. He has traveled throughout many parts of the world, especially in Europe

and Asia, and has visited North Korea several times during his career.

1) In your opinion, what have been the most significant driving forces in separating North

Korea and South Korea in terms of culture and economy?

The most important point of division is the Cold War. Although national sentiment would have

pushed the two countries to reunite in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the two Cold

War ideologies and the reality of geopolitics at the time drove the two countries apart. The

North adopted a Marxist political and economic framework; the South adopted a capitalist

framework. Despite these differences, the two countries still developed in very similar ways

through the 1970s -- both adopting state-led economic development, authoritarian political

structures, and rather conservative cultural mores.

2) How do North Koreans feel about the prospect of reunification?

That's hard to say, since we don't really have much direct access to North Koreans. However, I

did write a piece last year about an unusual poll of North Koreans on reunification:

3) How would you describe the social atmosphere of North Korea?

North Koreans prioritize relations with family and friends. Public events tend to be very formal.

But privately, North Koreans spend a lot of time eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and hiking.

4) What role do you think North Korea will play in international politics and trade later in the

twenty-first century?

North Korea is a small country with only about 25 million people. Aside from its nuclear

weapons program, it doesn't have much impact on international politics. It does have some

important natural resources, which could provide it with some influence. If the two Koreas

reunify, North Korea would then have a much more important influence.

5) What are the barriers to foreign investment and the development of major industries in North


The barriers to investment at this point are the international sanctions against North Korea,

which discourage banks and businesses from investing in the country. Most of the investment

comes from China.

6) What are some things you have learned about North Korea that few people know about?

North Koreans are not automatons. They are not mindless followers of the regime. They are

well educated and increasingly know about the outside world. They have adapted to very
difficult circumstances. And while they don't necessarily agree with their state, they do feel an

allegiance to their country.

7) Have you seen any major similarities between North Korea and South Korea aside from

common traditions?

There are many similarities between the two Koreas. But the more that South Korea becomes

globalized and North Korea remains largely isolated, these similarities become less important.

Appendix B: Visualizing the Differences:

The following chart was produced by The Guardian and provides a visual representation of

significant differences between the two Korean nations.