A Tale of Two Cities

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. seoul2


seoul3 seoulWar

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


Seoul Nightlife


The Endless City


Seoul Rush Hour

14 Incheon international airport

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:

Pyongyang East Of River

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.

twosistersUnification 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.


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14 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities

  1. Great post! Looks like you had a good trip to Seoul. I’ve known several Koreans over the years who grew up in Seoul and they seem like great people. It is a place I would love to visit one day.

    The differences between democratic capitalism and national socialism are unmistakable. There are many lessons to be learned about the inability of central planning to help an economy grow and prosper. From the simpler reality of the inability of a central planner to ever adequately estimate demand for various goods and services (and therefore properly allocate resources to produce them) to the much more grim reality that such a system consolidates too much power in the hands of a few, fallen and self-interested men. This should make us mindful that God has blessed us greatly to have the freedoms we enjoy.

    My sincere hope is for the collapse of the North Korean regime in our lifetime- and the reconciliation of north with south.

    • It was a fascinating trip as usual. I have been to Korea many times over the past 15 years and each time I go, I discover some new aspect of their culture that I had clamored past previously.

      We may have won “the” Cold War, but South Korea is still fully immersed in one of there own. The existential threat to their way of life is every bit as great as the threat of global nuclear conflict was to ours. Yet, unlike our CW, when they look into the faces of their adversaries, they see brothers, cousins, uncles, and friends. It is more of a great sorrow that must be righted than it is animosity or fear.

      They see themselves as one country, divided artificially and the people of both sides long to reunite. Imagine if the US Civil War had ended in a stale mate with the North and South agreeing to a cease fire but resolving nothing…imagine how that would have changed who we are.

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  3. Chuck, I think this is my favorite post of yours. Clearly you have a passion for the place. I had no idea Seoul was as successful as it is. Learned a lot here – thanks.

    • Koreans have an interesting world view. Over thousands of years they have seen occupying forces march in and out of their country. They see the current situation as tragic, no doubt, but there is this bond between them that they know will transcend any geopolitical construct. They are Koreans and that is that. This is why the clock I showed is so stirring. It really sums up their view – Time will unify what men and nations cannot.

      As usual, thanks for stopping by. Always good to hear from you.

  4. Chuck, what a marvelous article and the photographs were astounding!

    I first visited Korea in 1962-’63 and was stationed approximately three miles south of the DMZ. The second time was ’74-’75 and the improvement reminded me of Japan in the ’60’s. Today’s Seoul is almost unbelievable.

    Wherever I have encountered Koreans here in the U.S., they have made it obvious that they have brought their strengths of character and hard work along with them.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. Thanks Maine.
    Having been to Korea yourself I am sure you understand what it is I am talking about in my post.
    Seoul is a remarkable place, but you really have to experience it in order to “get it.”

    • Welcome back Rutherford!
      I was beginning to wonder what had happened to you.

      It truly is a powerful example of what a free people can achieve. The human spirit is unstoppable.

    • Korea is one of my passions if you could not tell. They are a fascinating people with a rich history. There is much we as a nation can learn from them.

  6. I’ve been looking around headmuscle.wordpress.com and actually am impressed by the good content material here. I work the nightshift at my job and it is so boring. I’ve been coming here for the past couple nights and reading. I just wanted to let you know that I have been enjoying what I’ve seen and I look forward to reading more.

    • Lynda,
      Thanks for taking the time to visit Head Muscle. Your readership and opinion are much appreciated. Please consider yourself welcome anytime.


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