If any image can tell the story of North and South Korea in one frame, it's this shot taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station in January 2014. The nighttime view shows South Korea lit up with electric lights. Seoul is so bright as to be nearly washed out. With a 2017 gross domestic product estimated at $1.4 trillion by the International Monetary Fund, South Korea is among the dozen most prosperous countries in the world. North Korea's GDP is estimated at around $25 billion. According to one 2016 estimate, the per-capita GDP of North Korea was $1,013 in 2015, lagging behind even undeveloped countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh.
By Stephanie Pappas / Originally published on LiveScience
This volcano on the border of China and North Korea is Paektu, or Baekdu, Mountain. It has long been a sacred place in Korean mythology and was said to be the birthplace of Dangun, the founder of the first Korean kingdom. North Korea's Kim dynasty has seized on this mythology and claims that Kim Jong Il, the country's supreme leader between 1994 and 2011, was born there under a newly formed star. (According to Soviet records, Kim Jong Il was actually born in the former Soviet Union.)
This 2012 image shows another stark nighttime view of North Korea and its more prosperous southern neighbor. In 1953, when the armistice ending the Korean War was signed, North and South Korea had similar levels of economic development. While South Korea has since nurtured high-tech industries and economic growth, North Korea has faced "chronic economic problems" under the repressive Kim dynasty, according to the CIA World Factbook. A widespread famine in the 1990s, exacerbated by the Kim policy of "self reliance" and the closed economy that prevented food imports, killed between half a million and up to 3 million people, according to different estimates.
An image taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite in April 2014 shows pinpricks of fire across North Korea. Some may have been wildfires, according to NASA's Earth Observatory. Others, particularly those near rivers, were probably agricultural fires, set by farmers growing crops in mountainous, marginal land.
The Yalu, or Amnok, River runs for 490 miles (790 kilometers) along the border of North Korea and China. This image, taken by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's Terra satellite, shows the river in August 2010, after weeks of rain swelled waterways and caused flooding and mudslides.
Baekdu in winter
A gorgeous view of Mount Baekdu and its crater lake, Heaven Lake. In Chinese, the peak is called Changbaishan (translates to "ever-white mountain"), a name that seems appropriate for this image captured on April 4, 2003. Mount Baekdu last erupted in 1903. In around A.D. 946, the mountain exploded in one of the largest-known volcanic eruptions in human history, according to the Smithsonian Institution's Global Volcanism Program, depositing rock fragments as far away as northern Japan.
This 2014 image from NASA's Advanced Land Imager on its Earth Observing-1 satellite gives a sense of North Korea's rugged terrain as well as its agricultural practices. Burn scars seen near the river running down the center of the image are probably agricultural burns, according to NASA's Earth Observatory. Farmers struggling to grow food in poor, mountainous land focus their efforts alongside river valleys and burn away debris from the previous year at planting time.
Tropical Storm Tembin blankets the entire Korean peninsula in this true-color image taken on Aug. 30, 2012, by the MODIS instrument on the Aqua satellite. The storm hit just days after another storm, Typhoon Bolaven, made landfall. Prior to hitting the Korean peninsula, Tembin had hit Taiwan twice — first on Aug. 23 and then after looping back again on Aug. 27.
A hazy day in South Korea is clear in the North. This image from Feb. 6, 2007, was taken by NASA's MODIS instrument on the Aqua satellite. The haze emanates from China, which has struggled with air pollution issues as its population becomes more car-dependent.
No man's land
This false-color image shows the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a buffer between South and North Korea that was established in 1953 as part of the armistice that suspended the Korean War. Troops are stationed along both sides of this border, and burn scars in this image show some of the changes that both militaries have wrought on the DMZ in the context of patrolling and surveillance, according to NASA's Earth Observatory.This image comes courtesy of the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus sensor on NASA's Landsat-7 satellite.
Line of truce
Another view of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in real color. The 2.5-mile-wide (4 kilometers) buffer is a mixture of mountains to the east and grasslands to the west. This image combines Landsat-4 and Landsat-5 satellite data from between 1989 and 1991 to get a cloud-free view of this largely depopulated swatch of land.
A divided penisula
In this image taken by the MODIS instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite, the Korean peninsula's differences disappear. This view of both North and South Korea shows two small fires burning in the North (red dots).
China and North Korea
Phytoplankton blooms turn the water psychedelic in this November 2001 image captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA's Terra satellite. The Bohai Sea is seen at the far left, with its three bays: Liaodong, Bohai and Laizhoid (from top, counterclockwise). The Korea Sea, part of the Yellow Sea, is visible as the darker region butting up against the Chinese and North Korean coastlines. According to NASA's Visible Earth, the murky sediments seen in the Bohai Sea are full of nutrients feeding the vivid blue plankton blooms.
Peering into Pyongyang
Pyongyang is North Korea's capital city and the home of most of the country's elites. It sits along the banks of the Taedong River and is home to approximately 3.2 million people, according to North Korea's 2008 census. A 2014 GoPro camera tour of the city — approved by the country's government — shows broad boulevards and Soviet-style architecture. Foreign reporters and visitors are rarely allowed outside of Pyongyang.
Snow over North Korea
A blanket of white snow covers North Korea, dipping across the Demilitarized Zone into South Korea. This image from December 2002 was taken by MODIS aboard NASA's Aqua satellite. North Korea's winters are long, as the CIA World Factbook puts it, "bitter." According to Weather-and-Climate.com, average temperatures in January hover around 26 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 3 degrees Celsius), and there are 37 snowfall days on average in the winter months.
A tail of dust swirls over North Korea in this image taken by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's Terra Satellite in April 2002. The dust was blowing from East Asia toward the Sea of Japan.
Typhoon Rusa, one of the strongest to hit the Korean Peninsula in recorded history, made landfall at Goheung in South Korea in August 2002. Its expanse, however, affected the entire peninsula, as this image made with data from the MODIS instruments aboard NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites show. More than 200 people in South Korea died and thousands were left homeless in North Korea, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Efforts.
A dense blanket of fog curls against the North Korean coast and across the Yellow Sea in a satellite image captured on March 28, 2012. Foggy days are common over the Yellow Sea, according to NASA's Visible Earth. In this case, NASA scientists found that the fog was likely the result of northeasterly winds pushing moist air over the cool sea surface, causing the moisture to condense. Pyongyang is faintly visible as a grey spot in the upper lefthand corner of the image.
A colorful region
This zoomed-out view of North Korea, South Korea and the eastern portion of China shows the interaction of sea and land in the region. To the lower left, China's Yangtze river pushes a plume of sediment into the East China Sea. This image was taken by the Sea-Viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS) aboard GeoEye's OrbView-2 satellite, which collected data between 1997 and 2010. This shot was taken soon after the satellite's launch in 1997.
Record cold temperatures hit Asia as a "polar vortex" dipped southward in January 2016 and were captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA's Terra satellite. This map, made from land surface temperature data collected by that instrument, shows temperatures between Jan. 17 and 24, 2016, compared with averages for that period between 2001 and 2010. The darker the blue, the farther below average the temperature in the 2016 cold snap.
By Stephanie Pappas / Originally published on LiveScience