North Korea: A Distorted Mirror
IN JULY 2009, North Korea launched seven Scud missiles into the
Japan Sea. It wasn’t the ﬁ rst incident of sword- shaking that the coun-
try had initiated in the recent past. It had launched a Taepodong
2, an intercontinental ballistic missile, into the chill of a quiet Sun-
day morning in April. It had—for the second time—tested a nuclear
weapon underground in that same month. Across the globe, denun-
ciations rang out as government ministers and United Nations ofﬁ -
cials warned of a new arms race. South Korean and Japanese anti-
missile boats haunted the waters just offshore, ready to shoot down
any new missiles if they wandered toward their territory. Once again,
tensions were at sky- high levels on the Korean peninsula.
At the same time, a new famine threatened the countryside, en-
dangering the lives of thousands of peasants. If not for cheap food
imported from China and sold in local black market bazaars, ru-
ral North Korea could not feed itself. It is estimated that the same
amount of money it took to launch the rocket in April, approximately
$500 million, would have been enough to pay for food for half the
population for a year.
24 The New Korea
If Oscar Wilde had written The Picture of Dorian Gray with a
country in mind, modern Korea would be the ideal main character.
In the course of its sixty- year history, the southern part of the Korean
peninsula has grown by breathtaking leaps, seemingly becoming
younger and stronger with every passing year. Meanwhile, a mirror
country hidden in the attic regions of the peninsula—one that few
people have ever visited—grows older, crueler, and more frail at the
same pace. Yet it refuses to succumb.
South Koreans grow up, start families, and pursue careers un-
der the menacing shadow of North Korean artillery. But the psychic
impact goes beyond the military threat. South Koreans have a vivid
sense that they are living only a segment of the national dream. They
understand that half the country has been torn from them—and will
For decades, that sense of division was fed by the fear that com-
munists would overrun the South. That almost happened in 1950.
Today, however, the overriding emotion most people have for North
Korea is pity. The world understands that the communist regime
cannot survive much longer, and that reuniﬁ cation will be costly for
the South. But it will also be rewarding.
While there are certainly spiritual, familial, cultural, and hu-
manitarian angles to the potential reuniﬁ cation of the peninsula,
there is also a signiﬁ cant economic story. North Korea represents
Asia’s poorest and most unexploited hinterland. When uniﬁ cation
does happen, it will bring a new chapter in development to the an-
cient country. But ﬁ rst, let’s take a look back at the war that began