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50 Years After Korean War, Life in North, South Are Very Different - 2003-07-24

Hostilities in the Korean War ended with an armed truce 50 years ago this month. Three years of fighting devastated both North and South Korea, and destroyed much of the infrastructure on the divided peninsula.

South Korean pop artist BoA sings contemporary love songs and has legions of fans in Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Her recordings are top sellers in South Korea, but across the border, in North Korea, it is likely few people have heard of her.

Patriotic anthems such as this one, called My Home, Sweet Home, ring out from radios and loud speakers across the North. Human rights activists say radios there are wired so listeners can hear only government-sanctioned news and music.

Fifty years after hostilities ended in a tense, armed truce, life in the two nations, like their music, could not be more different.

The South is a multiparty democracy, with a thriving economy, and a huge export sector. The North is poor and inward looking, with dictator Kim Jong Il at the helm. And recent global concerns over its efforts to build nuclear weapons have isolated it further.

As Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, explains that the contrast between North and South has not always been so great.

"They both, immediately after the Korean War, were at the same level, which was ground zero," said Mr. Mitchell. "But over the years, North Korea was pretty well ahead of South Korea. Until about the mid-1960s into the 70s, when it started to turn."

At that point, Mr. Mitchell added, South Korea's export industries began to drive economic growth, and it moved slowly toward democracy.

The path to wealth and democracy was anything but smooth. The South endured authoritarian rule under a series of leaders until 1993. And it ran into an economic crisis in the late 1990s. But South Korean companies now manufacture world-class goods. Powerful labor unions have won higher wages for workers, and given them a political voice, helping lead to its modern democracy.

"I think South Korea is a huge success," said Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, who now heads the Korea Society in New York. "They have the most vibrant democracy by far in Asia. They have turned their economic problems around. They have elected a very interesting new president, who wants to maintain strong relationships with the United States, but also wants to reach out peacefully with North Korea."

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was elected in December, succeeding Kim Dae-jung and continuing his policy of trying to engage North Korea.

The story is different in North Korea. After the war, the North's all-powerful leader, Kim Il Sung, introduced his philosophy of juche, or self-reliance, which became the focal point of the communist country's development.

By the 1970s, juche led to stagnation. North Korea had no access to the trade, international investment and technology that helped South Korea become wealthy.

Things grew worse in the early 1990s, when the end of the Cold War meant North Korea lost the financial support of the old Soviet Union.

Kim Il Sung died in 1994, and his son, Kim Jong Il, became head of state. He depends on a personality cult and one of the world's largest armies to maintain his party's grip on power.

Economic mismanagement and a series of natural disasters have brought the North to the brink of collapse. Aid agencies estimate that up to two million of its people died in the past decade as a result of food shortages.

"North Korea is an economic failure," said former U.S. ambassador Donald Gregg. "They relied on Soviet concessionary food aid. That came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Starvation set in in North Korea. They have had to call for help from Europe, the United States and from South Korea."

While Pyongyang tries to build its economy with more international input, it continues to lash out at Seoul and Washington. It accuses Seoul of being a puppet of the United States.

Now Pyongyang is embroiled in a conflict over its desire to develop nuclear weapons, despite its numerous agreements not do so. The standoff is costing it aid money and good-will it appears to be in no position to lose.

Mr. Mitchell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that North Korea will stay poor and isolated for the foreseeable future.

"It is going to take fundamental change, and we just do not see that right now," he said. "So, I think they want to create some conditions for economic growth, but not to the degree that it will challenge the political system, which is really the bottom line."

Former U.S. President Harry S. Truman declared in 1949 that the Korean Peninsula was a testing ground in the ideological conflict between communism and democracy, a statement that still rings true.