Understanding North Korea by Seeing the Similarities with the South

With all the shenanigans that are going on North of the border, I wondered if there can be anything we can learn about North Korea without even stepping foot in the country.  Do South Koreans have anything in common with North Koreans?  They share the same peninsula, sometimes the same family, and up until quite recently- the same history too, so perhaps we should be able to gleam some quite profound knowledge about the evil twin from the more saintly one.

The media both in South Korea and in the West like to play-up the differences; the South is rich and the North is poor, the South is a free society and the North is an imprisoned one, and the South is an example of a triumph of democracy and capitalism and the North is a failure because it has clung to the outdated and morally bankrupt idea of communism.  Other specific examples include, the height of the average North and South Korean and the famous picture of the peninsula from outer space, with South Korea lighting the way while the North is left in the dark.  This is a perfect sliding doors story for any journalist and like a scientific experiment on the worthiness of certain worldviews.  The story is so delectable, however, that many a writer appears to totally neglect the rather obvious comparisons that can be drawn between the North and South.  The cultural thinking and attitudes must have quite a few similarities when you scratch the surface of the glaring differences and delve a little deeper.

The media and the internet certainly has a surprising dearth of decent stories on this, other than the petty and unimportant similarities of both countries liking spicy food and sharing the same holidays and language.  With this in mind then, let me take you through some important cultural similarities that I feel are very relevant to the prickly situation in North Korea.

1. They are both highly suspicious of foreigners

The whole of Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom back in the days of the Choseon Dynasty after a series of invasions from China and from Japan when they cut off almost all relations with other countries.  Both Koreas still have a special hatred of the Japanese from the days of the occupation.  The Norths suspicious nature is there for all to see as it continues its hermit habits in grand style, the Souths on the other hand is quite well camouflaged to the rest of the world but blatantly obvious to any foreigner who lives there.

In the world of English teaching, South Korea is one of the top destinations, offering good pay and conditions, but it is also slightly infamous for conflicts and problems between foreign teachers and their employers.  Despite receiving aid from the US in the Korean War, it is also highly uncomfortable with the presence of American troops, although at this moment in time they are surely welcome.  Other suspicions of the US came to light during the US beef scandal and the protests over FTA agreement the between the two countries.

2. Nationalism

This ties in nicely with the wariness of outsiders but South Korea does have some issues with nationalism.  This is never more apparent than in dealings with Japan on the ownership of the island of Dokdo/Takeshima, which fuels widespread discontent in South Korean people and also the East/Sea of Japan naming argument.  A South Korean footballer even got banned form the medals ceremony in the London Olympics for bringing this argument to the attention of people after their bronze medal match with Japan.  I wasn’t at all surprised by this and wrote about it on this site in greater detail.

Dokdo is our territory.

In a quote from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, it says it is:

“concerned that the emphasis placed on the ethnic homogeneity of Korea might represent an obstacle to the promotion of understanding, tolerance and friendship among the different ethnic and national groups living on its territory.”

Much of this revolves around the bizarre belief in the purity of Korean blood, a nasty little piece of dogma that many in South Korea adhere to, despite obvious inaccuracy and irrelevance.

There are numerous examples where the above is relevant, and include:

The Bonojit Hussein Case

The Bath House Case

The Infamous MBC News Piece on Foreigners in Korea

Do I really need to point out North Korea’s attitude towards the superiority of their country?

3. Pride and a complex of inferiority

Linked in with nationalism is the pride many South Koreans have in their country, which unfortunately often goes too far, hinting on some insecurity hidden beneath much of the tireless self-promotion that goes on.  One cannot be humorous about any subject of national importance as I discovered when I made a joke about Gangnam Style in my High school English class the other day. After asking what the students liked about Korea, one said Gangnam Style to which I responded, I liked it when it first came out but now I have heard it so much I want to punch PSY in the face every time I hear it.  Usually my students laugh at all my jokes, even the bad ones, this one met with stone cold silence, it was as if I had taken a knife to their flag.

Of the many claims I have heard Korean people make is that they are the best in the world for: food, kindness, history, IT technology, culture, and of course have the purest blood.  The overkill in this regard is telling, much like the propaganda the North tries to sell to other countries and indeed itself.

4. A high regard for status and respect

Immediately upon landing in South Korea one can note that the culture revolves around respect and status, much like the Far East generally of course.  The Choseon Dynasty happened to be the longest running Confucian empire anywhere in the world and it is obvious this has  influenced the present culture quite profoundly both in the North and in South.  It is taken to its extremes in both places.  In the South status is sought after through the show of wealth through brand name obsession, cars, gadgets, and travel is also often used as a means to show-off to others.  This all goes above and beyond what we experience in the West, which of course has the same tendencies, but it is taken to a new level here.  Respect is reserved for the old and the men especially, what they say goes and people are generally used to taking orders and obeying without question.  This aspect of Korean culture regularly gets me into hot water with my wife’s family.  When her father says jump the family do it in unison, I on the other hand do not.  The solution is not direct confrontation – duking it out in argument such a thing would be unthinkable, the answer is to lie, something my wife and I have to do quite a lot with them and which makes me exquisitely uncomfortable.

In the North, again, direct confrontation to those of the highest status is unthinkable.  We all wonder if the population at large buys into all the clap-trap propaganda pumped out by the state, the fact is we may never know, but I know one thing for sure that they wont ever say or show dissension against the government.  A confrontation in this way is about as likely as me going face to face with my father in-law in argument.  We could argue but the consequences would be dire, in my case it could end my marriage or cause a split in their family and in the North Koreans case it could end in their lives and the lives of all of their family members.

When it comes to a show of status, the North differs from the South quite profoundly because they have so little material wealth to show off.  Instead they show military prowess and the efficiency and discipline of their people.  They put on a show that their philosophy is the best and that the people admire and idolise the 3 great Kims.

5. Jealousy

Because of the importance of status in both societies, I have always believed this fuels a rather large amount of jealousy that can be quite petty in nature.  In the South, the bag you carry on your arm, the clothes you wear, your family’s wealth, your husbands/sons/daughters job, your physical appearance, and even how much you have travelled can be fit subjects for jealousy and some quite spiteful treatment can come your way if any of these things promote insecurities in others around you.  Bullying is common at work and in schools for this reason and because of the age-related element of respect in the culture, older people feel like they have the authority to belittle those of a lesser age or position in a company.  If they, at the same time, feel a bit threatened by any of the above, I have found this can accentuate the mistreatment.

In the North, the success of their neighbours must be making them turn a deep shade of green with envy.  They obviously will stubbornly never admit this feeling, but I would bet my house on the fact that it is present and that it does drive much of its rhetoric and petulent behaviour.  The great satan, the USA, must also drive them crazy in this regard.  They are the most powerful nation on earth and the North seems to aspire to be this.  By challenging the US they can feel better about their own inadequacies, much like a bully does in a workplace or in a school.

There is a logical connection between a culture that values status more highly and jealousy, just as it is reasonable to assume that a culture that values freedom more highly will generally have greater amounts of licentious behaviour.  These are the side effects of the different value systems.

6. Hot-Headedness

I think there is a stereotype present in the Western world of Far East Asian people as emotionless, cold, calm, poker-faced, and logical.  Perhaps this is why the Vulcans in Star Trek seem to resemble our friends from the Far East.  South Koreans, on the other hand have a reputation in Asia, and I can confirm it from experience, of being quite impassioned and temperamental.  Koreans themselves will usually admit to this and they characterise this with two concepts represented in language by Jeong (정) and Han (한).  Jeong roughly means a great upswell of kindness and attachment to family and their fellow man generally, and Han is the feeling of great resentment, injustice, and oppression.  Han can give Koreans long memories and make it difficult for them to forget offences against them.  Jeong can make them exceptionally kind and hospitable, even to strangers and I have experienced this kind of treatment many times whilst living in South Korea.

It is pretty obvious to see how the concept of Han drives the feelings of those in charge in North Korea, they seem to remember every misdeed against them and hold a significant grudge about it all.  Jeong is a little harder to pinpoint, but I do find it so curious that they welcomed Dennis Rodman with such kindness considering he seems to represent everything that they hate in the world and is an American, and therefore could be considered the arch enemy of the regime.

7. Nepotism

South Korean companies are famously nepotistic, strongly favouring those within their own families.  Someone who has risen through a company is unlikely to end up running it in the end as it usually will be passed on to a family member, most often the eldest son.  The leadership of North Korea has passed down Kim Il Sung’s family line since the formation of the state, regardless of the merits of the leader in question.  Kim Jong Un was a surprise choice because of his lack of perceived experience and youth, but that did not matter in the end.

Kim Jong Un at his fathers funeral, all set to take the reigns.

8. Tyranny and submission to it

Very much related to point number 4 but I thought this deserved a special mention.  If you ever want to see a little bit of the North in the South, the family group and the work group are the places to start looking.  It is not aggressive tyranny at work but subtle and benign in most cases.  There is a culture of submission and agreement with higher authorities, at least on the outside.  Sons and daughters almost always say yes to their parents wishes , even if they disobey them later.  Curfews are enforced by most parents for their daughters right up until they are married, which can be up until 30 years old.  If you are dating a Korean girl, expect to have them back by 11pm or earlier.  Again they may break this curfew on occasion and get in trouble but it is extremely rare someone would argue against it.

In the business environment, it is amazing what Korean people will tolerate.  Seeing a contract is a rare thing and if they do actually receive one, the company can easily not adhere to it.  Korean people can go for an interview where a salary is agreed and then by the time they start work it can be changed to a lesser amount.  Bullying is rife and sexual harassment is certainly suspected to be commonplace (see a previous article on the subject).  Workers rights appear to be fairly non-existent and workers in certain professions don’t seem to work together to stand up for themselves.  In fact, they are usually intolerant to anyone who voices an opinion that goes against the established practices, weeding out the dissenters for those that are in charge.  There is a culture of one upmanship in South Korean work culture generally, playing into the hands of powerful bosses.  Lower status employees accept their lot without too much argument, fear of alienation or losing their jobs seems to drive this.

The North have the art of intimidating the populace with fear down to a spookily 1984 like efficiency.  But surely in most other parts of the world the people would have risen up against the government a long time ago, especially considering the abject poverty many people are having to live through.  The culture of submission, unquestioning devotion to the status quo and traditions, and the fear those of higher status invoke, all prevent widespread showing of discontent.  Individuals sometimes secretly make their way out, but no one voices their displeasure at the regime because, if they do, others are not there to stand with them.  Korea is a land of followers and not revolutionaries and they do not easily embrace a change of direction, whether this is in the North or the South, something that makes the last 60 years in South Korea all the more extraordinary.

This all sounds like a bit of an attack on Korean culture generally.  However, I think these are all factors that have helped the situation in the North become so volatile.  The differences, which have been so much talked about, are also extremely important and bring us to the vast distinctness between the countries we see today.  The South being a democracy really counts, the high levels of education, a free press, open borders, a healthy distrust of politicians, good relations with other countries and tolerable relations with the ones they might dislike are all factors of vital importance.  South Korea remains one of the success stories of the world and the North reminds us of the direction it could have gone.  Far from an attack on South Korea this article should serve as a reminder at just what a miraculous job South Koreans have done to enable their country to rise from the ashes of the Korean War – and other past ills committed against it – to become what it is today.