Peter Pan and Captain Hook, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, South and North Korea--people tend to see things in terms of opposite lines. In Korea, the tendency to view the “other side” politically as a complete opposite has marked inter-Korean relations, especially with regards to the Northern point of view. In reality, just as in every Peter Pan there's a little Captain Hook, both North and South have shared more than heritage. Both had leaders trained by outside powers who went on to develop autocracies in both nations, and both vehemently repudiated and in some ways continue to repudiate the other as illegitimate. In many ways, both Koreas began the same.
The Soviets brought Kim Il Sung back to Russia from 1941 to 1945, where they trained him as a potential future leader. As Buzo says, “the initial achievements of his framework were substantial.”(i) Similarly, Syngman Rhee spent a great deal of time in exile in the US, and while South Korea did not originally take off as quickly as North Korea, under Rhee South Korea also grew quickly. The greatest similarity between the two perhaps has to do with the efficacy with which both men took power. Both had great popularity, at first, although both had no problems finagling their way into the front seat. The similarity breaks down when Rhee leaves power and Kim continues; however, South Korea only replaced Rhee with another autocrat, Chun doo Hwan,(ii) followed by another. In hindsight, one may wonder why these autocrats succeeded: historical climate explains.
A well-cultivated plant transferred to a good greenhouse will flourish, and these leaders had the perfect hot political environment for autocracy both in North and South Korea. Charles Armstrong points out that strongly nationalistic authoritarian governments often find a foothold in “post-colonial society” as a form of reactionism, and that this occurred in North Korea with outside government intervention adding to the confusion to allow for Kim Song Il's particularly strong grip.(iii) In South Korea, “its fascist tendency was conflated with (or even masked by) its anticolonialism, and nationalism became a key ideology in both Koreas.”(iv) Both in North Korea and South Korea, strong autocracies developed under the control of these foreign-trained leaders because the anti-Japanese climate could handle the drastic change required for autocratic control. One could argue that Rhee and Kim both gained control for the same reason: their significant history as anti-Japanese activists. Towards the end, they turned out similarly as leaders, as well. Kim consistently destroyed his opposition through military control, and Rhee had his own political opponents assassinated as well. Both countries started with a strong mobilization economy, but here suddenly the road veers. Here lies the one true difference between the two—for the South Korean economy eventually allowed a consumer-driven market characterized by light industrialization and less government control.
The question of right and wrong, of course, remains unaddressed—whose actions actually benefited their citizens only later history can tell, but the propaganda and the attitudes from both sides remain the same. Compare the rhetoric of Rhee and Kim: “How come you are going to sacrifice your precious blood to become Soviet slaves?” cries Rhee, the same way Kim calls, “How can our nation...put up with US imperialist colonial rule and tolerate national humiliation?”(v) Even the style bears similarity, and, as Shin explains, both appealed to the 'same bloodedness' of the Korean people. Both viewed the others as duped or conquered by the Soviets or the US. In some ways, the two sides had the same nationalist goal, but different ways of working towards them, and only history could tell which actually worked. While today South Korea, has opened up conversation to North Korea through the Northern Policy, Sunshine Policy, and aid programs, recent North Korean actions demonstrate that the attitude of Pyongyang towards Seoul at least has not changed. In the history, sometimes this anti-Communism or anti-capitalism takes on such magnitude that perhaps the sentiment could express itself in the words of Peter Pan to Captain Hook, “If you were me, I'd be ugly.”
The two Koreas make a strong economic testing ground to compare the results of communism and capitalism precisely because the economic system is really the only strong difference between the two. In South Korea, the economic freedom gave the civil societies the stability and power to eventually phase out autocracy; starving people cannot revolt against a healthy army like North Koreas. In all other respects, although separated by the DMZ, the Koreas could not escape the identical historical climate set up for them. The history of colonial rule and the reactionary anti-colonialist nationalism fomented autocracy only differentiated because of simple geography; North Korea had Russia and South Korea had more accessibility to the United States. This is not to say that the USSR and US created the Koreas as they stand today, but to point out that only the political concentration of people differed, because of geography. Both Koreas embraced foreign-trained leaders who established controlling, violently anti-opposition governments in nearly identical historical, ethnic, and political climates, and both embraced with equal fervor the propaganda of the systems they put forward. One system had a different economic focus, and history has mercilessly shown which system works.
i.Buzo, Adrian. The making of modern Korea / Adrian Buzo (Routledge, London : 2007) 181
ii.Not, as I put on my quiz, Pak Chung Hee.
iii.Armstrong, Charles. "Beyond the DMZ." Korean Society. Ed. Charles Armstrong. New York: Routledge, 1992. 189-190.
iv.Shin, Gi-Wook. Ethnic Nationalism in Korea. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001) 78