How Far Apart the Two Koreas Have Grown in Six Decades

South Korea and North Korea could hardly be further apart right now: the democratic president in Seoul who once dreamed of a reunification “bonanza” has been brought down by a political scandal, while the authoritarian leader in Pyongyang is upping the ante with missiles and nuclear threats that’s angered its ally China and outraged the U.S.

While North Korea’s Kim dynasty has defied the odds for decades, it’s at times of heightened crisis that questions on the future of the divided peninsula loom large. This series of graphics shows how far the two halves have grown apart during more than six decades of separation. They point to the huge challenges of bringing them smoothly back together, but also the potential benefits of reunification.

Together, a united Korea of 76 million people could become more powerful and prosperous, at least in the long term. South Korea’s aging population is one of its greatest economic challenges, and North Korea’s lower median age and higher fertility rate would greatly improve the demographic picture. It would also bring a host of problems, given the malnourished state of many of North Korea’s people and its poor health system.

The gap between the two Koreas today is far greater than between East and West Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. It would likely cost more and take longer to turn them into one healthy economy. A 2015 report from the National Assembly Budget Office estimated that even under a peaceful scenario where Seoul expands humanitarian support ahead of reunification in 2026, it could cost about $2.8 trillion to help bring North Korea’s GDP to two-thirds that of South Korea. That’s almost 8 times South Korea’s 2017 annual budget.

North Korea is more endowed with natural resources, ranging from coal to rare earths, which would complement South Korea’s industrial output.

Military costs could be cut back substantially on both sides of the 38th parallel, allowing the money to be funneled to other areas that lack sufficient investment, like social welfare. According to a U.S. State Department report in 2016, military expenditure accounted for between 14 percent and 23 percent of North Korea’s GDP during the years 2004 to 2014. For South Korea, it was only 2.6 percent of GDP during the same period.

The challenge of rebuilding North Korea’s infrastructure would be huge. Its rail lines are old and in disrepair and highways are scant. Yet it would be a huge opportunity for South Korea’s world-class engineering and construction firms, and provide employment opportunities for the masses of North Korean soldiers who would need to be redeployed more productively.

For now a unified peninsula seems remote, even though leading liberal candidates running in South Korea’s special presidential election on May 9 have talked about taking a softer line on North Korea.

"It’s not easy for both Koreas to meet for dialogue," South Korea Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said in an interview last month. "We’re not going to have dialogue for the sake of having a dialogue."

— With assistance by Yue Qiu

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