At 4 AM on 25 June 1950 North Korea launched a fierce surprise attack on her neighbor to the south. Rolling across the hotly contested 38th parallel with Soviet made T-34 tanks and thousands of foot soldiers, the “People’s Army” overwhelmed South Korean forces who had little more than light weapons and hand grenades to fight with. Seoul, South Korea’s capital city and commerce hub, stood directly in North Korea’s path, and despite valiant attempts by the south to defend her, in just a few short days she fell. The destruction was immense, and over the next three years of fighting almost 90 percent of this great city was reduced to rubble.
Most of its citizens had fled as the northern armies flooded south in wave after wave of artillery laced fury. Soon the city was all but empty with the exception of the dead and those who remained to fight to the death. Over the next three years, Seoul would change hands between the North Koreans, Communist Chinese, and UN forces five times as the contest to seize and hold it raged. At the end of hostilities the city was dead, broken by a civil war that would divide a great people for decades to come. After the armistice was signed, the rebuilding of Seoul started slowly due to the lack of materials and skilled leadership. With hard work and American support however, determined South Koreans slowly but surely began to bring her back to life.
Today Seoul South Korea is a vibrant city of just over 14 million people, with another 7 million or so in the surrounding areas. It is the home of giant conglomerates such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai and boasts more IP addresses per capita than any other city on Earth. Seoul is, by all accounts, nothing short of a miracle and a testament to the dedication and drive of the South Korean people. In the 56 years since hostilities between the north and the south ceased, it has literally risen from almost total destruction to being listed 9th on the Global Cities Index. It has a standard of living comparable to France and has been ranked above both Paris and Los Angeles as the 6th most powerful economic city in the world. The people who live there are becoming prosperous as well with an average annual personal income of about $32,000 US Dollars. On a clear day you can stand on the crest of Mount Namsan, near Seoul’s center, and literally become lost in an ocean of banks, five star hotels, apartment towers, and businesses. The city stretches out from horizon to horizon, its seemingly endless fingers of light twisting their way between mountains and across rivers. It appears to breath with energy, its arteries pulsing with cars, trucks, taxi cabs, and video billboards. It hums a steady tune of a thousand different sounds, each of them harmonizing perfectly in a metropolitan symphony. Seoul is, in many ways, a testament to the power of the human spirit.
Seoul, Republic of Korea
The Endless City
Seoul Rush Hour
Incheon International Airport Outside of Seoul
Now let’s take a look at her sister city Pyongyang, North Korea. Like Seoul, it is also an ancient city with direct evidence of Chinese habitation as far back as 105 BC. Relics have also been found there that predate history. Unfortunately, this is pretty much where the similarity ends however. Unlike its freedom loving democratic sister to the south, North Korea is a total dictatorship with a large portion of its wealth coming from illicit activities such as drugs, human trafficking, and weapons smuggling. Its citizenry is completely subjugated by a corrupt leadership, and concepts of individual freedom and human dignity do not exist. It is in essence a plantation where about 200 families own the farm and the rest are field slaves. In Pyongyang the average annual income is between $580 and $1,500 US Dollars. Poor government planning and a foolishly conceived “self-reliance” philosophy have resulted in massive food shortages responsible for starving to death almost 3 million North Korean men, women, and children. Today the average North Korean lives on about 600 – 800 calories a day, almost 2/3 below the daily recommended intake. Pyongyang, like the rest of North Korea, is almost entirely dependent upon food imports and humanitarian assistance from China, the US, and Europe, to feed its people. It is a country that would rather spend 25% of its meager GDP on second rate military hardware than on rice and milk for its children. There are no small businesses, no crowded malls, and no busy highways. There is only the anguish of an oppressed people. Let the pictures speak for themselves:
The Decayed City of Pyongyang
North Korean Children Waiting on Dinner…and Waiting
Busy Intersection in Pyongyang
Two Starving North Korean Children
Downtown Pyongyang at Rush Hour
Pyongyang International Airport
Notice that the Pyongyang rush hour does not exist. Without commerce, enterprise, or business of any kind, it is little more than a ghost town built upon the greed of its criminal elite. A few years ago while at Panmunjom, I looked across to the North Korean side and noticed that they had constructed a sign which read, “North Korea is a worker’s paradise.” In an ironic twist, facing this sign on the southern side of the border was a big billboard which read, “Everyone in Seoul drives a Hyundai.” Though these two countries share a history, a culture, and thousands of years of civilization they could not be more different and their two capital cities, Seoul and Pyongyang, tell the story perfectly. In fact, one picture tells it better than any other I have seen:
To the south – Seoul – a city of light. A place where people can hope to prosper and achieve. A place where human dignity and freedom are cherished and defended. To the north – Pyongyang – only darkness. Though this post is entitled “A Tale of Two Cities,” it is really a story about two sisters. One is strong and determined while the other is diseased and dying. For the strong sister time marches on, while for the weaker sibling it stands still. The weak girl hates her strong sister, not for what she does, but for what she is. She lashes out at her, spits at her, and even tries to kill her. Despite these desperate acts however, the stronger sister still stands by her side, braces her up, and waits for the day when they will once again become one family. This is the tale that Seoul and Pyongyang tell.
Unification Clock at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul Korea
Head Muscle would like to thank all its good friends in Seoul for their warm hospitality last week. As usual you have taught me a lesson in graciousness.