Infiltrating North Korea is a 19-part series exploring the world’s most reclusive nation and its bizarre, anachronistic way of life. To start reading at the beginning of the series, be sure to click here.
When it came time to leave North Korea and check out how the other half lives, it wasn’t as easy as showing up at the border and crossing from the North into South Korea; the two countries are still technically at war and border crossings as well as direct flights simply don’t exist between them.
Instead, I had to fly to China and then onwards to Seoul. Although the travel time took less than a day, I felt as though I had journeyed 50 years into the future when I arrived in South Korea.
I had never been to South Korea before and it was very odd showing up for the first time having just come from the North. I can’t imagine that too many people are introduced to the Korean Peninsula in this same unorthodox order, but by doing so, my perspective shifted and I began comparing the South to my experience in the North, instead of the other way around (which is the way it’s normally done).
Although I was in the sedate North for only five days, I was nonetheless taken aback when I arrived in the chaos of Seoul and was briefly overwhelmed with the mass of people, the hordes of traffic, the loud noise pollution and the avalanche of consumerism screaming for my attention with neon lights and brightly lit storefronts. North Korean defectors who arrive here must explode from sensory overload.
Seoul was very alive and very, very different from anything I saw in North Korea. It’s simply amazing that a similar people divided by a political line drawn in the sand can grow so radically apart and change so fundamentally over the course of 60 years. We’ve seen this before in East and West Germany, but the differences in Korea are far more extreme.
Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate this is a simple satellite photo of the Korean Peninsula at night which clearly shows a very dark North and a brightly lit South.
The differences are equally extreme when a tourist such as myself is able to zoom down to a more granular level and personally witness the impact of communism in the North, the explosion of capitalism in the South, and the shocking polarity which has occurred as a result.
The photos accompanying this post help illustrate this in a simple, visual manner. As you’ve no doubt figured out by now, the North Koreans are featured on the left (naturally) while their southern brothers are spotlighted on the right.
The differences, in my opinion, are so pronounced that I could mix up the photos and most people will still be able to guess which ones were taken in the North. One thing that doesn’t come across, however, is the pronounced height difference between the two countries. Prior to World War II, a variance didn’t exist. But after years of malnutrition, northerners are now four inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts. In fact, according to a fascinating LA Times article by Barbara Demick, the problem has become so extreme that the North Korean army has waived its 5’3″ height requirement.
Perhaps one day in the future, North and South will become one country; it will take countless more generations after that, however, before the Koreans return to being one people.