Top 5 Similarities between North and South Korea

What are the main similarities (and differences) between life in the two Koreas?
February 11th, 2013

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week, John S. (Australia), asks:

What are the main similarities (and differences) between life in the two Koreas? Please list some examples .


1. We Both Love Spicy Food

In both Koreas people have the same tongue for spicy food. And it seems that we both enjoy the same kinds of spicy food, too. The recipe for Kimchee is basically the same in South and North. Because the taste is so similar, whenever I eat Kimchee in South Korea it reminds me of my time in the North. I think this similarity comes from the fact that the recipes for Korean food were handed down through the generations, long before the country was divided.

While we’re on the subject of food, there are some other similarities I should tell you about. In both Koreas we eat Dduk (ricecake) and Yeot (taffy) before taking exams for good luck. It is because in Korean, people say “attaching to exams” to mean “passing exams”. Because ricecakes and taffy are sticky material, it became a custom to eat them to pass your exams.

2. We Both Have The Same Holidays

Even though there are minor differences between our holidays, we both celebrate many of the same holidays.  These include New Years Day with Ddukguk (Rice Cake Soup), Thanksgiving Day with Songpyun (a kind of Dduk), Daeboreum (the Year’s First Full-Moon Day), Hansik (the 105th day after the winter solstice), Dongji(winter solstice), and Dano (the fifth day of the fifth month of the year according to the lunar calendar). We both visit the graves of our ancestors on Thanksgiving, and pay a visit to our Grandparents on New Years Day.

3. We Both Respect Our Parents and Older People

In both North and South Korea we have great respect for what older people say.  And when it comes to family life, both sons and daughters usually value serving their  parents with devotion as a top priority. For example, in both Koreas we serve food to our parents first before we start eating ouselves. Also, when talking to our elders, we both use the ‘polite’ form of words and most of the societal norms are similar as well.

4. We Are Both ‘Short-Tempered’ People

We both love the idea of Bbali Bbali (빨리빨리! / Chop Chop!)’. I assume it’s because being Korean makes nearly everything a competition!  For some reason in both Koreas people also seem to wants finish work as soon as possible, rather than postponing it. It didn’t take long for me to recognize why people in South Korean restaurants were chasing the waiter all the time when I arrived = it’s down to the short tempered Korean spirit!

5. We Both Love Having Fun

We both love singing and dancing with family and friends and celebrating holidays together. I guess there are differences between ‘how’ we enjoy ourselves from a cultural perspective, though. For example, South Koreans enjoy ‘Noraebang’(Karaoke) a lot, while in North, people play instruments and sing a song. But both enjoy singing, dancing, and having fun.


1. South Koreans Use English a Lot More Than North Koreans

As I mentioned in a previous post, South Koreans use English often on public signs and in the general language. In North Korea people simply don’t use English words in the way South Koreans do. You’d just never hear words like “news”, “makeup”, “shopping”, and “sunglasses” in the DPRK, all of which are quite common to hear in the South.

English isn’t the only difference, though. There are also different expressions for the same words in Korean. For example, the game “Rock, Paper, Scissors” in South Korea is known as “Gawee Bawee Bo”, but in North we say “Gawee Joomuk”. Because of these small differences, some of my friends in South Korea didn’t understand what I was saying when I arrived!

2. We Have Different Education and Military Systems

In North Korea we spend four years at the People’s School then six years in Middle school. But in South Korea students spend three years each in Elementary  Middle, and High school. The biggest difference though is military duty: In South Korea it is 21 months but it is almost 10 years in North Korea!

Because of our long military service requirements, most North Korean men only start dating girls after military service is completed. While some of them do have girlfriends earlier, the fact it is so rare to have holidays in the military means it is hard for couples to sustain relationships at this time. In this way most North Korean men don’t start dating until their late 20s and as a result, the average age of marriage is often higher than it is in South Korea.

3. We Have Different Wedding Cultures

In South Korea the bride wears a gorgeous wedding dress, the wedding takes place in a nice place, and afterwards the couple go on a honeymoon.

In North Korea, things are a lot simpler, with the wedding taking place at a local restaurant or the house of the bride or groom. The couple usually wear traditional clothes and put simply, we don’t have the idea of a honeymoon in North Korea.

The most common wedding presents in North Korea include cash, rice cookers, mirrors, plates or any other items for the household. But one thing similar between the two Koreas is that the groom is expected to buy the house and the bride to buy things to fill the house.

4. We Have Very Different Fashion Taste

In South Korea people can wear whatever they want. When I first arrived here and saw all the South Korean idol pop groups I was so surprised: in North Korea people prefer to wear much more casual fashion styles than the ‘stand out’ styles that these pop idol groups wear.

Usually, people in the DPRK wear things like a white top and black skirt, Kim Jong Il style suits, work clothes, gym clothes, or military clothes. In contrast to South Korea, the government bans things like skinny jeans, mini skirts, and even certain hairstyles for girls.

5. Internet Addiction

Of course, how could I skip out the internet?  In South Korea, you can use the internet freely, but in the North only public or education organizations can use the internet (and even then its highly controlled). When you think about all the PC Bangs (internet cafes) in South Korea, you realize how different the two cultures are in this way – of course North Koreans have no idea about search engines, Internet shopping, email, or Facebook.

Got A Question?

Jae-young grew up in North Korea but now lives in the South, and is happy to tell you all about her past. So if you have a burning question for her, get in touch and send us your questions.

Artwork by The Morning Skyrail

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About the Author

Jae Young Kim