Average North Korean vs the Average South Korean – People Comparison

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So far in our shows featuring the average person, we’ve focused on Europe and North America. Today we’re heading to Asia to compare what could be called a flourishing nation with a country that is usually given the epithet of ‘secret state.’ The two countries sit side by side, and yet today they share little in common. One nation is viewed as a threat to western democratic capitalist values, and the other an ally and exponent of those values. Separated by a demilitarized zone, it’s not often that the global public gets to see what happens north of the border. Even when we are given a glimpse inside the secretive nation, we are often told the reality was only a show, propaganda. Today we are going to take a look inside, in this episode of the Infographics Show, The average North Korean vs. the Average South Korean.

According to a fact sheet created by the Korean Economic Institute of America, South’s Korea’s 51 million people are currently living in the 13th largest economy in the world based on purchasing power parity. That number is 1.93 trillion dollars. It’s GDP is 1.4 trillion dollars, putting South Korea in 11th place in the world for GDP.

North Korea’s 25 million people will not be enjoying an economic boom anytime soon. It’s GDP, according to the CIA Factbook, was 25 billion dollars in 2015. Some sources say this number is lower. The country’s main industries are agriculture, mining, fishing and the services, while South Korea’s major industries cover more modern sectors such as electronics, automotive, shipbuilding, and petrochemicals.

What this means in terms of wealth per capita, well, you can probably figure that out. The average wage in South Korea in 2016 according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development was just over 32,000 U.S. dollars a year. This was taken by calculating the total wage bill in the country by the number of full-time employees. As the North Korean government doesn’t publish its salaries, it’s hard to know exactly what people get paid. According to North Korean Economy Watch, a high paid official in the country could earn as much as 1,000 dollars a month. In an article published in NPR, it was said many talented North Koreans working in good factory jobs were earning around 62 dollars a month. It also said the workers were doing relatively ok, and some were earning 100 dollars per month. This is certainly good when compared to the bottom rung of the ladder, with some reports saying many North Koreans earned as little as 2 or 3 dollars a month.

If that is the case, how do they survive on such meager wages? For starters, North Korea claims that it is the world’s only tax free country, celebrating Tax Abolition Day on April 1st. Even if that’s true, many studies tell us that a large number of North Koreans battle with poverty. A KUNI report stated that much of the population has to live on corn and kimchi, and doesn’t even have fuel to cook with.

The upside, if it can be seen that way, is that all North Korean property is owned by the government. North Koreans are given a place to live, but the condition of that place will depend on what work you do and what rank you hold. Your social status and which part of the country you live in will also factor. This could mean getting a fairly decent apartment, or living in a place heated by an open fire that does not have a flushing toilet or reliable electricity. Education is also free, and North Korea says it has a national literacy rate of 100% for children 15 or over. Healthcare is free, although according to various articles, it is lacking. This is because of underfunding, which is partly due to sanctions and a struggling economy. According to one article published in The Guardian, sick people were using crystal meth instead of medical drugs because the former was cheaper and provided a modicum of relief.

South Koreans could be said to be breaking good in comparison, but at the same time more money does often mean more problems. While the southerners enjoy higher wages, they also have high household debt according to global averages. In a 2017 article in Business Insider, South Korea landed in 7th position on the debt list, with 90% household debt to GDP.

While working in North Korea doesn’t sound like a walk in the park, South Koreans are well known for overworking themselves. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the South Koreans worked the second highest number of hours in the world in 2015, at 2,113 hours. This could include 12 hours of obligatory overtime on weekdays, and 16 hours on weekends. South Koreans get 16 days of public holidays, one less public holiday than in North Korea. We might also cite a recent Time magazine article that said North Koreans are forced to work 70 days straight to get a day off. Other sources have said they get 15 days off a year.

With all that hard work, South Koreans might hope to have good healthcare if they fall ill from overdoing it. That they do, with their free for all compulsory National Health Insurance. South Korea also has very modern standards of medical care and highly qualified medical professionals. The system is frequently rated as being one of the best in the world.

It can’t, however, do anything for a successful suicide. According to the most recent World Health Organization report on global suicide, South Korea was the only developed country in the world to make it onto the top ten list. Other lists include Japan. Rates differ wherever you look, with some sources putting South Korea in third place in the world, behind…North Korea. Most reports don’t mention North Korea because there are no verifiable statistics. The rates are rising, and it stands at around 41.7 per 100,000 men in South Korea. This is very high in view of all other developed nations. Many experts say the high expectations of society on sometimes overworked men is to blame. The rate is also high for women, we should add. This also applies to school in the South, where students study notoriously long hours as well as after school study. For this reason, its students are often in the top leagues globally for their academic performance. 7 out of every 10 high school students in South Korea go to university, but this also means competitiveness and pressure make life hard for youngsters. One report says half of them think about ending it all during their school years. It also means more expensive private schools popping up, while private university semesters can cost anything from US$3,000 to US$6,000. North Korea’s 23,000 colleges and universities are all free.

Let’s now turn to the body. These two countries should surely have similar looking people, right? Well, some reports say that due to ill-health, North Koreans are on average two inches, or even three inches shorter than South Koreans. Outspoken social critic Christopher Hitchens once wrote that it was more like a 5 or 6 inch difference. Men in the South average around 5 feet 8 and a half and women about five feet 2. The South Koreans are also quite well-proportioned, and not suffering an obesity crisis like many developed nations. Men average around 154 pounds and women around 123 pounds. Unlike the paunchy leader Kim Jong Un, most North Koreans are on the lighter side than their southern counterparts. Some reports state that Kim Jong Un gained 88 pounds since becoming leader.

As for having fun when not working too hard or prostrating yourself to your most excellent leader, a Guardian article that cited North Korean defectors said that the spirit of eumjugamu, meaning the love of ‘drinking, music and dancing,’ is alive and well in the North. This is where the two countries can say they still share a similar trait: they both love karaoke and getting wasted on white liquor. Although, said the article, North Koreans do it at home and southerners tend to go out.

We’ll leave it on that merry note. Can you think of other ways North Koreans differ from South Koreans? Let us know in the comments! 

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