Growing Up in the Two Koreas

The Korean peninsula at night (google earth)

The above image of east Asia at night is worth more than a thousand words. Below the 38th parallel is the birthplace of my mother-in-law in South Korea, which is luminescent at night as the result of its highly developed economy. My father-in-law was born above that line in North Korea, which today appears to be little more than a shadow of its southern neighbor. Even if one knew nothing about history or geography, they could infer from that single satellite image that there must be a chasm in living standards on either side of the border.

A full history of the two Koreas and the war of 1950-53 is beyond the scope of this post. What is relevant is that the forces of history and politics took a once cohesive nation and cleaved it in two, having disparate effects not only on the ideologies on either side, but also on the physical bodies of the respective inhabitants. It’s almost as if someone collected a population of dandelions from a single field and then placed them in two different greenhouses for six decades, replete with different soil quality, sunlight, and temperatures, and then observed how they fared. By now, many people have heard something about how North Koreans are significantly shorter than their southern cousins, implying that, like our dandelion example, the conditions for physical growth are quite different in the two greenhouses. John McCain even mentioned this during the 2008 presidential debates to illustrate North Korea’s brutality toward its citizens. How true is this claim?

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