Korean family parts after a reunion in North Korea, 22 October 2015. (Korea Pool Photo via AP)

A family parts after a reunion in North Korea, 22 October 2015. (Korea Pool Photo via AP)

This article is part of a News-Decoder series of “decoders” that explain crucial background to big issues. For more decoders, click here.

By Pauline Bock

They share a common history and culture. They speak the same language. But they have been divided for nearly seven decades and are at daggers drawn.

Cut from the same cloth, North and South Korea are a study in contrasts — one a “hermit kingdom,” the other a purveyor of some of the world’s most sought after consumer goods.

Poor and largely isolated, North Korea would seem an unlikely threat to world peace. But with nuclear weapons, an expanding arsenal of missiles, an unpredictable dictator and friends in Beijing, Pyongyang cannot be ignored.

News-Decoder recently published behind-the-scenes photos from North Korea by Mindy Tan. To see them,
click here.

Like Germany and Vietnam, Korea was split at the end of World War Two. But while the Germans and Vietnamese are now reunited, Koreans remain divided as world powers struggle to resolve a conflict that has soldiers eyeing each other across the world’s most heavily militarized border.

Regional fight with global implications

The Korean peninsula saw dynasties and kingdoms succeed each other over centuries until Japan seized control in 1910.

With Japan’s defeat at the end of World War Two, the peninsula was split in two. The Cold War led to the creation in 1948 of two separate governments split by a border at the 38th parallel, with North Korea in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence and South Korea allied with the United States.

In 1950, North Korean soldiers crossed the border to invade the South. Just two years after their creation, the countries were at war.

As North Korea’s army moved south, U.S. forces entered the conflict. At the dawn of the Cold War, a regional fight quickly assumed global implications, with the Communist states of China and the Soviet Union backing Pyongyang and the U.S.-led West behind Seoul.

A sea-saw conflict that destroyed much of Korea’s infrastructure ended in 1953 just about where it began — at the 38th parallel, which has since marked the buffer zone between North and South Korea.

Radically divergent paths

Between one million and two million soldiers died in battle and as many as 2.5 million civilians were killed — some 10 percent of the population.

While the conflict ended with a truce, South Korea did not endorse the armistice. Today the countries are still officially at war, and the United States still has troops in South Korea.

Since the end of the war, North and South Korea have taken radically divergent paths.

Officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea has been ruled by a single family dynasty. The state controls the means of production and pursues a military-first policy. Its leader, Kim Jong-un, is the third member of his family to rule over the world’s most militarized society.

Democratic South Korea has a highly developed economy and is home to global corporate giants such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai.

Population* 25 million 50 million
Gross Domestic Product  (in U.S. dollars) 30 billion*** 1,410 billion*
Infant mortality (for 1,000 births)* 27 4
Life expectancy (in years)* 70 81
Press freedom ranking** 179 60

Sources: *World Bank, **Reporters Sans Frontières, ***Bank of Korea (estimation)

There are no internationally recognized figures for gross domestic product in North Korea. This is due to the absence of a market economy, the secrecy of the regime and the lack of official data. The GDP figure for North Korea in the table is an estimate for 2014 published by the Bank of Korea.

There are only 1,024 North Korean IP addresses tracked by BGP, the Internet’s traffic signalling system, meaning few have access to the Internet. South Korea, meanwhile, has the world’s fastest Internet and 45 million users — 92% of its population.

Relations between the countries this century have swung wildly and unpredictably, from efforts at reconciliation to skirmishes between their armed forces.

There have been two summits, in 2000 and 2007, and occasional reunions briefly uniting families that have been split for more than 60 years. But each step forward has been followed, sometimes dramatically, by at least a step backwards.

There has been a naval conflict (2002), the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel (2010), the bombardment of an island (2010), downed drones, shellings, artillery fire and mine explosions in the demilitarized zone.

Does China want a reunified Korea at its doorstep?

In defiance of the UN, North Korea has tested missiles as well as a nuclear device in 2006. The UN and numerous nations have slapped a range of sanctions on Pyongyang.

China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the United States launched negotiations in 2003 to try to resolve security concerns, but the six-party talks broke down six years later after the UN Security Council condemned an unsuccessful North Korean satellite launch and North Korea kicked out UN nuclear inspectors.

Last month some South Korean families were allowed to unite briefly with relatives in the North before returning to the South — without any guarantee that they would see one another ever again.

The West is hoping that over time Beijing, worried that a disintegration of North Korea’s regime would spark turmoil that could spill over their border, will be able to rein in Pyongyang and promote reconciliation.

But does China want a reunified Korea, under Seoul’s control and allied with the United States, at its doorstep?

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WorldAsiaDivided Korea: A family torn apart
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