There is a temptation to think of the two Koreas as twins. But certainly not identical twins. After Japan surrendered to the United States and the Soviet Union in August 1945 (the Soviets had only been in the war for days … really just for days!), battered Tokyo relinquished the peninsula it had seized and brutalized from 1910 onwards. Korea had gone through nearly a half century of both imperialism and colonialism, quite different manifestations of similar instincts, and was left again as a captive nation. With a difference, of course. South Korea, occupied by American troops, moved quickly to independent rule that was also authoritarian rule. Still, governance with the U.S. was not governance by the U.S.S.R. In 1948, Syngman Rhee, one of the typical Cold War strongmen in the West, was elected president, and the American left depicted him as Mussolini at best. Alas, this false history has lingered, in some measure attributable to clinical phantast (and low-level, not-exactly-yet-sort-of Soviet spy, but hero of every progressive who remembers him) I.F. Stone and his book The Hidden History of the Korean War.
Of course, the progressives ignored the brutality of the regime in North Korea which for decades pivoted between Communist Russia and the People's China. What a happy choice! But the Kim dynasty can no longer count on Putin's Moscow for anything, and even Beijing is an unreliable partner. The Chinese were not about to end up in strategic conflict with United States over Pyongyang's nutsy nukes. Anyway, the big news is that the new Kim—Kim Jong-un, the roly-poly one—is now in charge. But he is not (yet) president. His grandfather, Kim Il-sung, was designated in the constitution as "eternal president." Still, even in revolutionary North Korea, eternity does not last forever. He died in 1994.
Ordinary life expectancy was also a big disappointment in North Korea. According to the CIA World Factbook (2011 estimates), the composite life expectancy was 63 years—for men more than two years less, for women three years more. Devastating, no? But the comparison with South Korea is positively desolating. Again, the source is the 2011 CIA report. The composite life expectancy is 79 years, one year higher than the United States. Imagine. South Korean women live to 82. South Korean men live to nearly 76. Almost all of the countries with lower birth expectancies than North Africa are in sub-Saharan Africa. But the Kim dynasty did build a bomb. Terrific.
I want to make several points.
The first is a didactic one. North Korea was the paradigmatic socialist economy and the paradigmatic communist polity. This is what it produced.
South Korea did not become really democratic till midway in its history, although its strains of authoritarianism began to edge away earlier. But its economic practices were always capitalist, with all its faults and all its virtues. And this is what it produced. Moreover, it is not a run-of-the-mill capitalism like those troubled banking societies of Western Europe. But even these—Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal—are near the top of the life expectancy tables of both the CIA and the only slightly different ones of the United Nations.
The second point is that South Korea is a high-tech society and, however much its values may or may not disturb us, it is geared to the services of intellectual and commercial life. It doesn't need a bomb.
The third is that we still don't know how North Korea will be aimed. It has only abjured atomic weapons for the food relief it will get from the United States; the Obama administration moved quickly and decisively to relieve the famine—a famine that had already killed millions. But whether the new Kim and his comrades are truly ready for an open society is unlikely. It would surely mean their unseating. I wouldn't bet on that. Still, the endemic starvation in North Korea is in a phase-out stage. Will the regime begin to end the ruthless rule of a provincial and pathetic patrimony? No one as yet knows.
But a historic judgement can be made. And it can be made despite the current travails of capitalism here, there, almost everywhere.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.