EconoMatters, Globalist Quiz

Korea’s Ongoing Divide

We wonder: How big is South Korea’s economy compared to that of its northern rival?

Credit: Norman Chan


  • North Korea has the world's fourth-largest military force, behind China, the US and India.
  • South Korea is not a nuclear power, though it maintains a defensive military alliance with the US.
  • Eleven people have served as president of South Korea, while only three people have led North Korea.
  • At the time Korea was partitioned in 1945, North Korea's per capita GDP was higher than the South's.

On June 25, 1950, North and South Korea went to war with each other. This ended in stalemate three years and one month later with an armistice that continues to present. Since then, the two countries have pursued very different paths.

We wonder: How big is South Korea’s economy compared to that of its northern rival?

A. Half as large
B. Two times larger
C. Four times larger
D. Over 40 times larger

A. Half as large is not correct.

The post-World War II division of the Korean peninsula was formalized in 1948 with the establishment of the North and South Korean nations.

The subsequent Korean War (1950-53) was waged by 603,000 South Korean troops and 267,000 North Korean troops, along with their large allies.

Six decades later, South Korea’s military is now 655,000 troops strong — about half the number of the North Korean military’s 1.2 million troops.

Based on the number of active-duty service members, North Korea has the world’s fourth-largest military force, behind China, the United States and India.

The Russian Armed Forces, the fifth-largest military in the world, ranks just behind North Korea and just ahead of sixth-ranked South Korea, measured in terms of military manpower.

In 2006, North Korea also became the most recent country to join the group of eight confirmed nuclear powers.

North Korea is believed to possess between six and eight nuclear warheads — and is getting closer to being able to equip missiles with them.

South Korea is not a nuclear power itself, though it maintains a defensive military alliance with the United States, the world’s largest nuclear power.

B. Twice as large is not correct.

South Korea’s population – at 49.5 million — is nearly twice as large as the population of North Korea (25 million). Interestingly, this two-to-one ratio has persisted since the countries were formally established in 1948.

According to the United Nations, South Korea’s population in 1950 was 19.2 million — nearly twice the 10.5 million population of North Korea.

North Korea’s population today is at the level of South Korea’s population in 1960, more than half a century ago.

The division of North and South Korea roughly along the 38th parallel meant that North Korea ended up with a slightly larger part of the Korean peninsula.

North Korea’s land area (120,410 sq. km or nearly 46,490 sq. miles) is almost 25% larger than South Korea’s land area (97,350 sq. km or nearly 37,590 sq. miles).

South Korea has close to 2.5 times the population density of North Korea — 510 people per sq. km, compared to 208 people per sq. km.

About half of South Korea’s entire population live in the Seoul-Incheon megalopolis. By contrast, about 12% of North Korea’s population live in its largest (and capital) city, Pyongyang.

C. Four times larger is not correct.

Since 1948, South Korea has had almost four times as many heads of state as North Korea. Eleven different people have served as president of South Korea, while only three individuals have led North Korea.

At the end World War II, the Korean peninsula was divided into a northern zone occupied by the Soviet Union and a southern zone occupied by the United States.

The Soviets installed Kim Il-sung as chairman of the Korean Communist Party in the north.

Kim ruled the nation for 46 years, from its founding in 1948 to his death in 1994. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il, who ruled for the next 17 years, until his death in 2011.

Kim Jong-il was succeeded in turn by his son, Kim Jong-un. At just age 32, he could potentially rival his grandfather in terms of the longevity of his reign.

South Korea has a democratic form of government. However, South Korea’s governance has not always been smooth, nor particularly democratic. Coups, assassinations, nepotism and corruption have challenged the legitimacy of South Korea’s leadership.

D. Over 40 times larger is correct.

Based on estimates produced by the Bank of Korea, South Korea’s central bank, North Korea’s GDP in 2013 was approximately $30 billion. This means that South Korea’s $1.3 trillion economy was about 43 times larger than North Korea’s.

North Korea does not publish reliable economic statistics, so estimates of the true size of the economy vary widely.

According to UN national accounts data, North Korea’s GDP is actually much smaller — at $15 billion. By this measure, South Korea’s economy is about 85 times larger.

Experts generally agree that at the time Korea was partitioned in 1945, North Korea’s per capita GDP was significantly higher than the South’s.

They also tend to agree that the North Korean economy grew faster than the South’s in the first several years following the Korean War.

Reforms initiated during the presidency of Park Chung-hee (1962-79), however, helped transform South Korea’s agricultural economy into an industrial powerhouse.

One of the poorest nations on Earth in the 1960s, its GDP topped the $1 trillion mark in 2004 — only the 12th country to have done so at that time.

Even if South Korea’s economy grows at just 3% a year, that is enough to increase South Korea’s GDP annually by an amount that is equal to the entire size of North Korea’s economy.

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