Your handy guide to telling the Koreas apart

Sat, Jul 28, 2012, 01:00

North Koreans were incensed when their flag was confused with South Korea’s at the Olympics this week. Here are some tips for avoiding another diplomatic incident

IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE a gaffe more potentially explosive: an irate North Korean women’s soccer team walk off the Olympic pitch after a video introducing their players shows the South Korean flag.

They later returned to play the match, against Colombia in Glasgow on Wednesday, but, as North Korea’s spokesman said, “The people are angry.”

Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, said it was a simple human mistake with no political overtones, but it was an error of staggering insensitivity.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to give the impoverished north its official title, and the successful capitalist Republic of Korea, to the south, are still technically at war after the 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice. They are divided by the world’s most heavily armed border, and nearly six decades of division have seen a mutual fear and loathing that threaten peace and stability in the region.

The incident took place at Hampden Park, Scotland’s national stadium, where you would think they would be used to avoiding inflammatory symbols after years of balancing the affections of Rangers and Celtic fans. And the Old Firm doesn’t have nuclear weapons, but North Korea does.

THE LEADERS

In the past few weeks North Korea’s softer side has been in the news, after revelations that the newly installed leader, Kim Jong-un, got married in 2009 to Ri Sol-ju, and had a child with her.

Kim has appeared in public with Ri, a first in this communist dynasty, which normally keeps its consorts behind closed doors. Kim has been seen at various events in the past few days, including riding on a roller coaster in a new theme park in Pyongyang. Clearly those punishing United Nations sanctions imposed for the country’s nuclear-weapons programme are biting hard.

Ri is a singer, and she visited Seoul in 2005 for the Asian Athletics Championships, during which she sang a selection of ditties, including Nae Nara Jeillo Joa (My Country Is the Best).

We still know relatively little about Kim Jong-un, and the fact that South Korean intelligence services, which along with defectors are the main source of information about the north, didn’t know he was married shows how many gaps there are.

Looking remarkably like his grandfather Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader, Kim was born probably in 1983 or 1984, and educated in Switzerland, prompting optimism that his exposure to western culture will mean a greater willingness to interact with the outside world. For all the totalitarian drabness of North Korea, Kim is emerging as a colourful figure.

South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, was born in Tokyo in 1941, one of the reasons why he is depicted as a rat in North Korean propaganda, often with lines saying things like “Let’s tear Rat Myung-bak to death!” No love lost there. Lee was formerly chief executive of the engineering unit of the powerful Hyundai business conglomerate, or chaebol. He married Kim Yoon-ok in 1970, and they have three daughters and a son.

Kim Yoon-ok is an illustrious figure, completing numerous women’s leadership programmes in various South Korean universities, with powerful connections – her family runs a construction company in Daegu. But she is not capturing the imagination like her northern counterpart.

THE FLAGS

Both are heavy on the red, white and blue, and laden with symbolic and political meaning, but, as befits an ostensibly communist country, the North Korean version has gone heavier on the red side, with the communist star in a white disc, a thin white line and a blue border. A flag weighing 270kg flies in the demilitarised zone dividing the two Koreas.

The South Korean flag has a symbol called a taegeuk at its centre, representing the two principles of yin and yang in perfect balance. Around the yin and yang sign are four trigrams, which are related to the five phases of fire, water, earth, wood, and metal.

THE ARMIES

Sometimes it seems the entire Korean peninsula is in the military. Kim has declared himself marshal of the Korean People’s Army, and the military is the key to power there; the country’s army is one of the biggest in the world, with 1.2 million troops. One in five males aged 17-54 is in the military, and conscription is for between three and five years.

The South Korean army has a 650,000-strong active force and 3.2 million regular reserves. It is linked to the United States military, and the US has nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea as a deterrent.

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