Today, even though it has a highly advanced economy — more than 80 percent of South Koreans have broadband Internet access at home, the highest rate in the world — the country has a nearly provincial relationship to its local heroes, like Ban Ki-moon, the foreign minister who will be the next U.N. secretary general. The most famous South Korean of recent times was Hwang Woo Suk, a scientist who in 2004 and 2005 announced breakthroughs in cloning. At home, he was worshiped, a hybrid of Einstein and Madonna. The government awarded him the title Supreme Scientist and gave him millions of dollars. The embrace was so intense that when a television news program reported on unethical conduct in Hwang’s lab, the program’s sponsors withdrew their ads and the show was temporarily taken off the air. The reporting was accurate — Hwang faked his research. The awards were withdrawn, prosecutors charged him with embezzlement — yet even so, supporters staged rallies, and a Web site in his honor pleads, “Please come back, Dr. Hwang.
In North Korea, nationalism has taken a different course and been put to different uses by a tyranny that exports counterfeit dollars and has been described, with amusing accuracy, as a “Soprano state,” after the Mafia family in the HBO series. But until the 1970’s, when it began to be hollowed out because of the inherent contradictions of command economics, North Korea was more industrialized and prosperous than South Korea. It has always, and proudly, had the upper hand in a key nationalistic category — foreign troops are not based on its soil. When I visited Pyongyang in 1989 (a long time ago, but North Korea’s cryonic rhetoric has changed little in half a century), officials I met were obsessed by two things: the threat posed by American troops on their doorstep and South Korea’s cowardly acceptance of these foreigners. It was not unlike, I now realize, the religious fervor with which Islamic conservatives criticized the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia and the cowardly royal family that welcomed them (when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990).