Are North Koreans and South Koreans the same people? Dense volumes have been written on the differences between the two states, and clearly the politics, societies and life experiences of the divided people are radically different.

Still, they share a cultural heritage and a language, and on both sides of the border, there is an attachment to the idea that Koreans are “one race.”

Division and defections

In fact, the peninsula’s pre-modern history was one of division, marked by battling kingdoms, before the landmass today known as Korea was unified into a single polity in the 7th century. Fast forward to the 20th century and the hapless peninsula fell victim to Cold War politics following the defeat of colonial power Japan in 1945. Two states, under Soviet and US sponsorship, emerged in 1948. War followed in 1950.

Since the Korean War ended in 1953, a virtually impermeable border, the Demilitarized Zone, has bisected the peninsula, dividing the two Korean peoples from one another with razor wire and minefields.

But there is one population that bestrides the DMZ: Defectors who have fled from North to South.

Since the war ended, according to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, 31,093 defectors have arrived in South Korea. But in a nation with a population of 51 million, defectors make up a minuscule part of the population, with the result that only a tiny number of South Koreans are personally familiar with North Koreans.

While early defectors were feted as heroes and others were treated with sympathy, as greater numbers of defectors arrived – particularly amid and following the horrific North Korean famines of the mid-1990s – attitudes shifted. Some defectors now say they are looked down upon as unsophisticated bumpkins, and a minority of hardcore leftist South Koreans even brand them “traitors.”

Attitudes toward defectors vary, said Lee Deuk-sung, a South Korean filmmaker.

“Some people have sympathy for them and some are afraid of them,” he said. “I believe some people still feel a huge distance from them in many ways … we need enough time to understand each other.”

Are North Koreans and South Koreans the same people? Dense volumes have been written on the differences between the two states, and clearly the politics, societies and life experiences of the divided people are radically different.

Who is North Korean, who is South Korean? The answer is at the bottom of the story. Photo: Anuj Madan

Sympathies and stereotypes

Many South Koreans believe they can identify defectors, not only from their giveaway accents – which many defectors work hard to suppress – or from their stature – due to malnutrition or family heritages of malnutrition, many North Koreans are physically smaller than Southerners – but from their facial appearance.

Park Eun-hee, a high-profile North Korean defector who arrived in South Korea in 2012 and gave a TedX talk in 2018, is familiar with the prejudices.

“It’s common to hear things like ‘North Koreans have higher cheekbones’ or, ‘they have squarer jawlines,’” she said. When prodded as to why they think this way, South Koreans cite “malnutrition” as the supposed cause of the way they look, even if malnutrition would create weaker, not stronger, bone structures.

It does not take much prodding for even young Seoulites, who are generally welcoming of defectors, to confess to some prejudiced beliefs.

“We do welcome North Korean defectors because we believe what they did was very brave,” said Pyun Han-byul, a 28-year-old clothing shop owner. But when questioned on differences in appearance, she said: “I guess we [South Koreans] think ourselves better in fashion sense, like better quality clothing and hairstyles and stuff … actually, also with facial structure, too.”

In Young-mok, a 37-year-old overseas sales representative, said: “We cannot really tell who is from North or South because they are the same people,” but then added: “I just have a sense to know where they come from!”

In quoted a well-known phrase in South Korea: Nam Nam Buk Nyeo, or Beautiful women come from the North, handsome men from the South.”

Who is North Korean, who is South Korean? Answer at the bottom of the story. Photo: Anuj Madan

Putting prejudice to the test

Park, the defector, approached Seoul-based American photographer Anuj Madan (the writer of this article) and suggested a social experiment. Madan would take photos of North Koreans and South Koreans, then he and Park would hit Seoul streets and ask locals if they could guess which subjects were from the North and which were from the South.

The aim was to find out if South Koreans really believe their northern brothers and sisters look different and if so, what are the imagined determining factors.

Another North Korean defector, Jun Hoe – who runs a successful YouTube channel related to his heritage and life – joined the experiment. At the Hongik University campus in Seoul, the group asked students to tell us if they could tell the difference, and why.

Most respondents had it wrong. The same was true when a survey was taken in Seoul’s central business district. Among a group of high school students who perused the photo at the top of this page, seven guessed wrong and only one guessed correctly. In a government office, looking at the same image, eight officials guessed wrong, four guessed right.

Respondents tended to skew towards the expected and obvious stereotypes, though one of the government workers guessed correctly on the basis of double bluff: “She is trying to look South Korean!” he said.

Still, the overall result was clear: It is not feasible to tell the difference based on face alone.

“As evidenced by our short experiment, most people can’t tell the difference by simply looking,” said Madan. “Not that looking different is in itself necessarily a bad thing, but using these imagined differences to discriminate or create a divide between people in what was once essentially one nation seems ignorant.”

Addressing the broader issue of the two Koreas, Park said: “One plus one doesn’t just equal to two, it can also equate to simply a bigger one.”

And Lee, the filmmaker – who confessed he could not tell Northerners and Southerners apart – suggested that the broader lesson of the experiment is universal. “Respect the differences no matter who they are,” he said. “Not only Koreans – but people worldwide.”

How did you do …?

Top/title image: South Korean on left; North Korean defector on right.

Center image: There are no South Koreans in this image. Both are North Korean defectors.

Bottom image: North Korean defector on left; South Korean on right.

To learn more about and support North Korean defectors in South Korea, visit www.teachnorthkoreanrefugees.org and watch videos from defectors themselves, including Park Eun-hee.