In the painting’s foreground, a group of farmers with listless facial expressions stand knee-deep in a rice paddy, just behind a grimy pile of detritus, which includes war weapons and symbols of western decadence — Coca Cola, cigarettes, and Korean text for the words “my money.”
Behind them, a group of folks in traditional Korean attire smile, dance and eat in an idyllic rural setting. In the background is Mt. Baekdu, which sits at the northernmost point of the Korean Peninsula.
The painting, called “Rice Planting,” was done in 1987 by South Korean artist Shin Hak-chul and was widely interpreted as a critique of the capitalist, pro-U.S. nature of South Korean society, implying that South Korea is a polluted, unkind place, while North Korea is clean and peaceful, still in tune with tradition. Like other leftist artists and thinkers of his day, Shin seemed to be positing that South Korea’s social and environmental fabrics had been disrupted by latching on to Western concepts like capitalism, and the me-first mentality that comes with it.
Nowadays, North Korea tends to make international headlines for one of two reasons. First, it conducts some kind of nuclear or missile test, and in so doing becomes more capable of threatening the rest of the world. Second, news comes out about the horrible living conditions there, be it forced labor, prison camps or poverty.
South Korea certainly has its flaws — it’s still a corrupt society and stressful enough to have a world-leading suicide rate — but it tends to make headlines for very different reasons. It has a regionally trendsetting entertainment business, top-notch electronics and a functioning democracy where badly-behaved leaders can be peacefully and legally deposed.
While it was once desperately poor, the postwar period has seen South Korea become a developed country with high living standards, a top-notch transportation infrastructure and some of the highest education levels in the world. Meanwhile, North Korea allocates so much of its budget to its military, instead of things like health care and education, that the country has remained a pocket of backbreaking poverty in a region where its neighbors have enjoyed tremendous development in recent decades.
The current picture appears to be one where South Korea has resoundingly won the two Koreas’ long battle to be the more successful half of the peninsula. It wasn’t always this way. Some observers of peninsular affairs, pretty much all of whom are on the political left, have at times argued that North Korea is actually a better country.
Let’s hear them out.
Until the late 1980s, South Korea was ruled by authoritarian governments who denied most civic and political rights. Those leaders — Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan et al — operated with U.S. support and thousands of U.S. soldiers were (and still are) stationed in South Korea. To some nationalistic Koreans, the U.S. presence on the peninsula, and the big brother-little brother nature of it, was shameful and humiliating. North Korea, on the other hand, would never agree to such an arrangement and was free to do whatever it wished. There was also a time in the 1960s when North Korea had a larger and faster-growing economy than the South.
As for the environment, South Korea’s economic boom definitely damaged its natural ecosystem. The country’s population density has meant that many natural spaces have been paved over and much wildlife has gone extinct. In the North, there are claims that the country’s “relative inaccessibility” has kept it a place of “spectacular crags and spires of rock tower,” with “pineclad foothills,” “pristine lakes and waterfalls adding to a richly forested beauty.”
This is highly debatable. Most North Korean houses don’t have central heating, which means that residents need to burn wood to keep warm in winter. This has led to widespread deforestation, and anyone who has visited both South and North Korea can tell you that the two countries have similar mountainous topography, but that in the South the mountains are richly green, whereas in the North they are brown, having been stripped bare for fuel. That deforestation is a factor in perennial floods and food shortages.
Defenders of North Korea also argue that South Koreans have allowed even their language to be corrupted. When Korea was a colony of Japan, the Japanese administration made efforts to stamp out use of Korean language and as such, the preservation of Koreans’ special tongue developed an emotive, nationalistic importance. Everyday speech in the South is replete with words adopted from English, notably motel, coffee and pizza. North Korea takes pains to keep such foreign influences out of its tongue. For example, instead of using the English word “ice cream,” North Koreans use a Korean word with a similar meaning in translation.
When some westerners travel to North Korea — usually on choreographed tourist trips — they sometimes come back with stories about how it really isn’t so bad there, and that the Western media exaggerates the negatives. Such narratives are generally not worth taking seriously, as they fail to consider the fact the North Korean government carefully manages what foreign visitors can see, and that almost all North Koreans live without basic freedoms, and risk ending up in a prison camp if they step out of line.
Contemporary defenders of North Korea will often point to aggressive overseas actions by the U.S. in places such as Yemen, Libya or Iraq and say something to the effect of “What about the U.S.? They do plenty of bad stuff. And there are lots of Americans stuck in prison too.”
The U.S. certainly has plenty to answer for, but such lines of reasoning are pointless. Whatever the U.S. does or doesn’t do isn’t an excuse for the rights violations that have been extensively documented in North Korea. And while South Korea doesn’t have a perfect rights record either, it has a functioning judiciary and humane conditions in its prisons.
And at the very least, if you don’t like life in South Korea, you can get a passport and go live somewhere else, as many have done. North Koreans can’t legally emigrate; if they want to get out, they can only do so in secret, at great risk and expense.
So in conclusion, does South Korea have anything to learn from North Korea? Short answer: yes. North Korea is a glaring example to all countries of what not to do.
Steven Borowiec authored this article.
Cover image: A satellite view of the Korean peninsula illustrates the two Koreas’ disparate levels of development. (Source: Wikipedia commons)
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