North Korea and South Korea are more alike than this famous satellite photo would have you believe. (Photo: NASA / Flickr)
You’ve seen those nighttime satellite pictures of the Korean peninsula. The northern half is dark, while the southern half is a thousand points of light. You might think: hat’s off to those thrifty North Koreans who are helping save the planet by conserving electricity!
But of course, that’s not the message you’re supposed to take away with you. The nighttime map is supposed to be a visual representation of what we intuitively feel to be the political, economic, and social reality of this divided land. The people of North Korea live a benighted existence in a totalitarian environment, where the entire population experiences the “lights out” of a labor camp or a detention facility. The people of South Korea, meanwhile, are just like us, staying up all night to eat, drink, dance, and party. The North is Gulag style, while the South is Gangnam Style.
The reality of the Korean peninsula is, of course, vastly more complicated than these either-or contrasts. Stop thinking of the peninsula as two completely distinct halves, with barbed wire running down the middle. At the very least, think of Korea as the Taoist yin-yang symbol: two cupped apostrophes, one black and one white and each containing a dot of the other’s color. There’s a little yin in yang and a little yang in yin.