Things That Can’t Be Unseen: The Differences Between North and South Korea

The Korean War was life-changing in more ways than one. Boundaries were being redefined. One such case was that Korea was split into North Korea and South Korea. Since then, the two nations have been openly hostile against each other. They have developed differently during the past 70-plus years. These images show the glaring contrast between the two countries.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

There is a dramatic difference in the skylines of the capital cities of North and South Korea. Pyongyang’s skyline in the top image shows tall buildings, but these pale in comparison to the skyline of Seoul.

It’s not just the skyline, but also the sky. The Pyongyang skies appear polluted even though the city has fewer cars, whereas Seoul exhibits a clear skyline despite a higher population and more vehicles.

South Korea Flies High in Terms of Airports and Airlines

North Korea has just one airline, and it has the lowest rating. South Korea, on the other hand, has several airlines.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

North Korea is a relatively closed country with fewer inbound flights. South Korea is open, promotes business and tourism, and, as a result, has a higher number of inbound and outbound flights.

Monuments Commemorate Cultures and History

Even in the matter of monuments, one can see a vast difference. North Korea is a dictatorship, run by a family that has always glorified itself, and that shows in its monuments.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korea focuses on memories captured in monuments; moments frozen in time as it were. The South Korean monuments commemorate memorable moments in history, whereas the larger-than-life statues of North Korea are meant to be revered.

Small Towns—and Life in Small Towns—Are Worlds Apart

One large city might not be much different from the other, but the hinterlands bring out the differences between the two Koreas in vivid detail. Depicted below are two small towns of North and South Korea.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The top image from North Korea has a distinctly rural flavor, and the bottom image of a smaller town in South Korea shows just how much more developed it is, looking more like a city than a town.

Tour Guides Point to the Chasm between the Two Countries

North Korea is a closed country and tourism is limited to just a few areas with a tour guide in tow. In South Korea, tourists can wander at will and choose a tour guide if they wish.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The North Korean tour guide is in a uniform, looks strict, will give you a strictly conducted tour, and woe betide you if you step out of line. The South Korean guide is informal, relaxed, and friendly with tourists.

Government Buildings Signify Culture and Political Outlook

North Korea is purportedly a communist-cum-dictator nation, and its buildings testify to that political and cultural outlook with propaganda banners looming large. The South Korean government buildings are modern and blend in with surrounding commercial structures.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The North Korean buildings stand out like a sore thumb, reminding the people about who is in power. South Korean government buildings show business as usual, with functionality gaining precedence over form.

Summer Camps Mold Children to Be Future Citizens

Summer camps are highly beneficial for kids, helping them to get to know nature and to make new friends. However, the North Korean style is exclusive and seems to be a controlled environment where discipline rules.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The South Korean camp shows an informal gathering of children of varying ethnicities enjoying nature and each other’s company. Surely, they are having more fun than their Northern counterparts.

Let’s Take a Ride on a Bus

Transportation, whether of goods or people, is important for any economy. One can see that the state of roads is primitive in North Korea, and travel in rural areas is a risky undertaking as the image shows.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The South Korean bus looks luxurious and safe. The roads are wide and well-paved. You can travel in safety, comfort and do it quickly to many more places.

Art and Freedom of Society

Controlled regimes extend their domain even over art as can be seen in the North Korean painting. Just to appease the rules, artists will include the Great Leader in their paintings. North Korea heavily censors and monitors art and artists.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

In South Korea, artists have full and free reign over their creative instincts, and talent flourishes as a result, whether it is painting, drama, or music. There is total freedom of expression. This also inspires artists to depict love for the country in creative forms.

Personal Transportation – The Great Wheel Barrier

North Korean economy is not well-developed, and the majority of the population is working class and unable to afford vehicles. Many people prefer to ride bikes, often in groups, as can be seen in this photo.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

Many in the South Korean population earn well and can afford to own personal vehicles. They must also travel faster and go greater distances. The roads are also well-developed. There are more cars, motorcycles, and buses in South Korea.

Museum Guides – One is a Parrot, the Other Informs

The prevailing political and social atmosphere shows through in the way the museum guides look and dole out information. The North Korean Museum guide will parrot lines they have committed to memory, and they are dressed in an orthodox way.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The South Korean Museum guide looks casual and is friendlier and ready to answer questions in addition to providing a lot of useful information in an unrestrained way.

Festivals – Conducted Events and Joyful Celebrations

Festivals bring out the culture and tradition of nations. North Korean festivals tend to be controlled, conducted, and conservative events with very little outside participation. It is a closed circle, perhaps conducted to create an image.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The way South Koreans celebrate festivals is joyful and exuberant, with plenty of public participation. Even tourists take part, and they become a wonderful, gala affair, beautiful to look at and enjoyable for the participants.

Construction and Building – Primitive in One, High-Tech in the Other

Construction and building activities occur in both countries. The difference is that the methods appear primitive and crude in North Korea, with workers undertaking great risks and making do with whatever tools they have at hand. Inevitably, there are delays and poor quality is often the norm.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

Construction activity in South Korea is high-tech and done on a much larger scale using sophisticated methods and equipment. The result is that work gets done quickly and with much better quality. Corporations usually handle large-scale construction activities.

Motorcycle Cops – Same Job, Different Motorcycles

One can say that motorcycle cops in North Korea have it easy since there isn’t much traffic on the roads and people generally follow rules. So, they get by using mopeds.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korea has a much higher traffic density and motorcycle cops must also be better equipped. They ride large and powerful motorcycles with all the latest gadgets because they need them to do their job well.

Subways – The Mark of Progress of a Nation

Both North and South Korea have a well-developed subway system. However, there are marked differences as can be seen in the images, with the top showing a North Korean attendant in military-like attire and the wall adorned with a politically oriented mural.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The South Korean subway is just like subways you can find in Europe and America—clean, modern, and efficient, showing that it is far more progressive and advanced than North Korea.

Theater – One Free, the Other State-Censored

Theater, like art, is a barometer of a nation’s freedom. Art and theater in North Korea are heavily censored and only government-approved dramas can be enacted and shown in theaters.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korea has a liberal dispensation and theater has full creative freedom. One can see various types of plays and concerts in theaters, as well as movies from across the world.

Infrastructure – Primitive in One, Advanced in the Other

One can measure the economy of a nation by its infrastructure. North Korea’s economy is faltering, and it just does not allocate funds to develop or even maintain infrastructure. The roads and bridges are in poor condition in many places.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korea, on the other hand, is a booming country. It has industries inside the country and international trade is flourishing. South Korea has well-developed infrastructure by way of excellent roads, highways, and bridges spanning the country to facilitate fast movement.

Restaurants the Microcosm of a Country’s Food Culture

North Korea is a closed and restricted country, and you can feel it wherever you go, even in restaurants. The restaurants here are, no doubt, well organized and neat, but patrons are few and the atmosphere lacks warmth and congeniality.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

It is a fad to dine out in South Korea, and restaurants are often jam-packed. People also are more affluent and can afford to spend more on dining out. The atmosphere is convivial, with people truly enjoying themselves.

School Buses—Rickety and Risky in One, Modern and Safe in the Other

The standard of development can also be measured by the quality of school buses. North Korean school buses are simply trucks into which children are loaded cheek by jowl and transported to school.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korean children enjoy the facility of a regular, modern school bus driven safely to school by a responsible driver. Parents have peace of mind knowing they have one less thing to worry about.

Circuses—Where Both Koreas Go Head-to-Head

Circuses are hugely popular in both countries, and performers go head-to-head. Viewers will be spellbound by the feats of the performers in both countries. The difference is minor but worth a mention.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The circuses in North Korea are simpler in looks and have the bare necessities. In South Korea, the arrangements and facilities are far more elaborate and visually striking, down to the lights.

Difference in the Way They Use Beaches

The common goal of going to beaches is to get away from the crowded city and enjoy fresh air, sun, sand, and the ocean. People in North and South Korea love beaches, but there is a difference in the way they use them.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

Beaches in North Korea are less developed and there are fewer visitors as can be seen in the photo. Also, people still wear casual wear at the beach. In South Korea, it is just like in any European or American country—people are jam-packed under umbrellas and in the open. More to the point, they are wearing regular swimsuits and shorts.

Golf is for the Affluent, North or South

Golf is for the affluent, whether in North Korea or South Korea, but the golf greens look vastly different in the two countries.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

Whereas the North Korean golf course looks charmingly rustic, the South Korean links are more sophisticated and landscaped, showing a greater investment of money, time, and effort. Whether that makes golfing more enjoyable is moot, but one cannot ignore the fact that South Korean courses are world-class.

Street Art–Like Comparing Apples to Oranges

Street art is painting on the walls, even if it is inside a subway station. Here, too, one can see street art reflecting the life, politics, and way of life of each nation.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

As is to be expected, murals in North Korea focus solely on depicting the great leader at every nook and corner, towering over a cowed populace. The sameness of it is striking. In South Korea, there is a profusion of creative talent using street walls to display their art.

Currency Showcases Leaders

Money or currency is a way for a nation to honor its leaders. It is no different in the two Koreas. Value of currency apart, what is displayed on the currency is a display of the mindset of the dispensation and the population.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The North Korean currencies exclusively focus on depicting only their male leaders and generals. South Korean currency exhibits more variety by also showcasing great leaders and philosophers, including women. Truly a remarkable democracy, this country.

Train Stations and Waiting Rooms in the Two Countries

North Korean railway stations have a conservative look, and the waiting room is more traditional with good sofas and tables but as usual, the mural depicts the great leader. Also, there are fewer travelers.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

Train stations in South Korea are bustling places; chock full of people spread out over benches as they wait for trains to arrive or for the arrival of their near ones. You could be in any part of the world.

Education of Different Sorts on Field Trips

Students love field trips because they are enjoyable and educational, offering a respite from classroom-based teaching. However, field trips are vastly different in the two countries.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The North Korean children are in uniforms and march in formation, possibly to listen to a rehearsed speech. The South Korean children proceed in a casual way along country roads, stopping here and there to learn about flora and fauna from their teacher.

Newspapers Can Be Mouthpieces or Expression of Journalistic Freedom

Newspapers are supposed to give you the latest news, right? However, in North Korea, newspapers are mouthpieces of the ruling dispensation, publishing only what the government tells them to. There is censorship at all levels.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korean newspapers are similar to newspapers in free nations. They give you the latest news from all over the world and do not hesitate to write critical editorials.

Availability of Foreign-Language Books Is Markedly Different

People have the right to read what they want, one may assume, but that assumption is incorrect in North Korea. The government decides which foreign-language books to allow and which to prohibit. Any book that is critical of the dispensation or contains ideas contrary to the ideology is not permitted. They permit foreign language books, but availability is restricted to a selected few.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korea is a free place and people may buy foreign-language books from a huge collection available in stores across cities.

Wedding Styles – Timeless in One, Modern in the Other

One can clearly see the difference in wedding styles. North Korea is a closed country and traditions as well as orthodoxy prevail as can be seen in the bride’s wedding outfit. Perhaps western wedding gowns are not yet socially acceptable here.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korean couples and brides are more modern and adventurous in the selection of dresses as well as the way they wish to be wed and choice of locations. Weddings here are joyous occasions and people splurge on them.

Ski Resorts Are Different, Too, in Look and Tone

North Korea and South Korea each have lovely mountains with beautiful ski slopes, and skiing is a popular activity. Each country offers several ski resorts, but the style, size, and amenities are quite different between the countries.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

North Korean resorts tend to be architecturally grand, a mixture of modern and traditional but well-furnished all the same. South Korean ski resorts tend to mimic Swiss chalets in design and layout. Intrepid skiers will not care one way or the other if skiing is all they wish to do.

What Leisure Activity Means in These Two Countries

It is necessary to relax and let your hair down to recharge your batteries, but the definition of leisure activity can be vastly different across these two countries.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The interpretation of leisure activity in North Korea is for people to gather in public squares, stand in orderly formation, and probably listen to an inspiring speech from the Supreme Leader. In South Korea, it is like in any other modern country—people make a beeline to parks and camp overnight, enjoying their leisure time.

Parking Lots Tell You a Lot about Vehicle Ownership in the Country

Parking is a big problem in advanced economies as anyone who owns a vehicle knows. However, cars are expensive in North Korea, and most people just cannot afford to buy them. You will see parking lots nearly empty even on a weekend.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

People in South Korea are relatively affluent, and they need to own personal vehicles. Despite the presence of many parking lots, it is difficult to find space regardless of whether it is a regular weekday or a weekend.

You Think it is Easy to Travel Within the Country?

Typically, citizens have the right to travel within the country, but this is not so in North Korea, where citizens face internal travel restrictions. Though the stations are visually attractive with marble walls and chandeliers, trains run nearly empty.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

Citizens of South Korea enjoy modern facilities for travel within the country. Their bullet trains speed from one end of the country to the other. People can travel as they please, by road, by air, or by train.

Don’t Tell Me There Are Traffic Jams There

As far as North Korea is concerned, the scarcity of vehicles means roads are almost always empty with not a vehicle in sight. It sounds like a scene straight out of science fiction, but this is reality.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

Seoul is full of vehicular traffic throughout the day, and traffic jams are a common sight. This is not surprising given the presence of so many vehicles and the obvious prosperity in South Korea.

The Rural Regions Should Be Pretty Charming

Or so you’d think. The rural scene in North Korea is anything but charming. One can see vast stretches of barren land, shorn of trees and forests. There is a ray of hope. The country holds an annual tree-planting day every March so, maybe in a hundred years…

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

The rural scene of South Korea reflects its booming economy. Lush green fields, forests, and animals abound. It is greener and more enticing.

Self-Expression is Our Right, Isn’t it?

So long as you keep your thoughts to yourself, no one will bother you in North Korea. It’s saying it loud that lands you in trouble in this country. The best young adults can do is enjoy themselves at places like the Taedonggang beer shop in Pyongyang and dream of better times ahead.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korea is far more liberal, and people have free reign of self-expression. People are free to choose what to do, talk, eat, wear, and think. You can do your thing here with no worries.

North Korea Scores on the Housing Front

If there is one good thing about North Korea it is that residents, have it good. They never have to pay for housing, bills, or communal services. The State provides. Once a couple registers their marriage, they receive a free apartment. Even the residential buildings look modern and well ordered. Surprised?

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korea, modern and advanced though it is, is terribly expensive when it comes to residential housing. A small apartment costs $180,000 or more. One can’t have everything.

Both Nations Are Technologically Advanced

North Korea has advanced military technology and is known for its nuclear capability as well as missile capacity. It does well on the appliances front, too, with factories turning out consumer products like TVs, though most are made in China and rebadged in North Korea. The problem is that most people just do not have the money to afford these things.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korea is better off in terms of electronics and heavy industry, and people are relatively better off and freer to use any technology just like people in Europe and America.

You Can’t Restrict Fashion, Even in North Korea

Ladies in North Korea dress conservatively. Contrary to what most people believe, they can wear pants and style their hair any way they want. Supermarkets and sellers in China cater to the needs of fashion-conscious people in North Korea.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korean men and women can dazzle with their sartorial sense. They are stylish to the extreme and one can see girls, women, boys, and men sporting a bewildering array of styles, from their hairstyles to clothes to shoes.

The Highs and Lows of Education

Thankfully for its citizens, North Korea has made it compulsory for children to undergo one year of preparatory school followed by ten years of schooling. Western literature and geography also find a place in the curriculum, supposedly to acquaint students with the Western way of life. Rich children go on to universities; poor ones look for work after schooling.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

Children in South Korea must complete 12 years of schooling with an option to undertake studies in universities, some of which have a global reputation for academic excellence.

There is Plenty of Food, But…

North Korea clearly does not focus on agriculture. Food is available, but there is a lack of variety in fruits and vegetables except for apples and cabbages. To make up for missing protein, people here hunt frogs and turtles. The most common foods available in street stalls are meat buns, popcorn, and sausage sticks.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

In addition to imports, South Korea has an abundance of locally grown food across the range. It takes pride in its national cuisines besides adopting European foods.

Economy and Business Districts in Each Country

North Korea’s economy is controlled and isolated, and it faces severe sanctions. However, one can see that its business districts have tall buildings, and the economy chugs along, barely able to meet the needs of its people.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korea’s economy is thriving and exports account for a major part of its growth, particularly in electronics followed by engineering.

A Closer Look at College Campuses

The two countries differ regarding to education, particularly at the university level. The North Korean system is disciplined and controlled, and classrooms have a traditional, dated look. College students’ campus life is monitored, and there is very little freedom for self-expression. Only the well-to-do in North Korea can afford a college education.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korean colleges are modern centers of knowledge where students have freedom of choice. College classrooms are spacious and equipped with multimedia devices. Even students from across the world choose to study in South Korean colleges.

Internet Accessibility in the Two Koreas

As one can expect in a country where everything is under State control, internet access is restricted, and some sites are blocked in North Korea. Internet access can be a luxury there, available only to the privileged.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

There are no restrictions on internet access in South Korea. People enjoy high-speed internet throughout the country.

Amusement Parks in the Two Countries Almost Similar

Surprisingly for North Korea, its amusement parks are popular and frequented by people with plenty of modern rides and ways to keep busy. One can see that people dress formally, even at amusement parks.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

South Korean amusement parks have a slight edge in being better equipped with a wider variety of rides and equipment. People dress casually and enjoy a wonderful day out.

Bus Stops–Utilitarian or Aesthetic?

Transportation services are minimal, and so are the bus stops in North Korea. These are just basic—a bench under a shade.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

Maybe they are overdoing things a little bit in the matter of bus stops in South Korea, but the one pictured here looks great. The bus facilities are top-notch, too.

Taking a Subway Ride in the Two Koreas

Most people in North Korea use bikes to get around. However, subways are also popular. As one would expect, people are more disciplined and orderly, with plenty of space for each person.

Photo by Jacob Laukaitis

Though people have personal vehicles, subways are quite popular and crowded in South Korea, especially so during peak hours.

You can go to Jacob Laukaitis’s YouTube channel to view more.