Two neighbors, but worlds apartApril 15 marked the 101st anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. He didn’t finish middle school and was aggressive and cold-hearted. If another communist had become leader of North Korea in 1945, what would have happened? If that leader didn’t invade South Korea, disliked cultish worship and pursued opening and reform just like Deng Xiaoping, what would the Korean Peninsula be like today? The 38th parallel line would have collapsed when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 or Korea’s reunification might have been attained earlier than that. A unified Korea could have been more affluent than Germany by now.
In the history of humanity, the Korean people are setting a record in light and shadow. Among all ancient dynasties, modern states and contemporary nations, no two countries sharing a border have had extreme polarization like that of the peninsula. The gross domestic product of the South is 40 times larger than that of the North, and per capita income is 20 times bigger. When the Berlin Wall fell, per capita income of West Germany was only three times that of East Germany. And the per capita income of the United States is about nine times that of Cuba.
The most shocking polarization is the physique of the people. The average height of South Korean men between the ages of 19 and 24 is 174 centimeters (5 feet 7 inches), while the average height of 20-year-old North Koreans is 164 centimeters. South Korean youth are similar in physique to Italians and taller than Chinese and Japanese. North Koreans are closer to the build of Indonesians, Vietnamese and Filipinos.
In ancient times, people of Goguryeo (37 B.C. ? A.D. 668) in the northern part of the peninsula were taller than people of Silla (57 B.C. ? A.D. 935) and Baekje (18 B.C. ? A.D. 660) in the south. Now, the physical build of the entire ethnic group has regressed as a result of a lack of nutrients. North Korean youth continue to shrink. The lowered height limit to serve in the North Korean military was decreased again to 142 centimeters. In the South, you have to be 159 centimeters to serve. North Korean soldiers wouldn’t stand a chance against South Koreans in hand-to-hand fighting.
The tall and healthy South Koreans are pulling off world-class accomplishments in sports. Golfer Park Se-ri, swimmer Park Tae-hwan, figure skater Kim Yu-na, speed skaters Lee Sang-hwa and Mo Tae-bum, and pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin are a few of the South Korean athletes who have achieved international acclaim.
Speed skater Lee Seung-hoon, in particular, is considered a miracle. At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, he won a gold medal in the men’s 10,000-meter race. Lee Sang-hwa and Mo Tae-bum won golds in the 500-meter race, but Asians often challenge in short-distance speedskating events. However, the 10,000-meter race requires extraordinary physique and stamina, so it has been dominated by Europeans and North Americans. As no Asian has won a 10,000-meter race in history, skating experts say Lee Seung-hoon’s victory was the stuff of legend. It’s all thanks to economic development that young Koreans are well nourished and can grow as tall as Europeans.
Some North Koreans are born and raised in concentration camps. Some report their own parents for attempting to escape. Even soldiers are starving while serving in the military. A North Korean soldier who defected to Cheorwon, Gangwon, in 2011 was 154 centimeters tall. When I visited Mount Kumgang in 1999, I saw a young soldier who seemed at least 10 centimeters shorter than his South Korean peers. The leather belt with a handgun was hanging on his slim body. He was staring at the tourists with a blank look. The young North Koreans were withering away.
The three-generation legacy of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un has continued for 68 years. It is unprecedented in recent history. Fidel Castro and his brother Raul Castro have led Cuba for 54 years. Muammar el-Qaddafi was killed after 42 years in power.
The Kim family have filled their own stomachs with delicacies while keeping the people hungry when North Korea is short of 500,000 tons of food every year. You can buy 500,000 tons of corn with $100 million. But the North Korean regime chose to waste billions of dollars on developing nuclear weapons and missiles.
Kim Jong-un is plump and well-nourished. His wife, Ri Sol-ju, also seems healthy. Their chubby and smooth faces evoke the emaciated ghosts: the short and skinny farmers, workers and soldiers with extremely rough skin. Heaven gave Kim Il Sung to the North in 1912 and Park Chung Hee to the South in 1917. Park Chung Hee attained the Miracle on the Han River, while Kim Il Sung created the tragedy on the Taedong.
The Korean people must end the history of darkness and work to create a “Miracle on the Taedong River.” Can the daughter of Park Chung Hee do the job? Can she reform the grandson of Kim Il Sung and take on the mission of Korean history?
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin