Despite a fair diversity of natural resources, Korea’s human resources are often described as the most valuable. This was true in traditional agricultural times, as it is in the modern industrial age.
Clean water and wood for fuel were readily available to support agricultural productivity throughout most of Korea’s history. Forests were once thick and wildlife abundant. Also, there was always an array of ocean resources to help provide for nutritional needs. However, many of these resources have been depleted as Korea has modernized and become more densely populated. In this case more human resources are a mixed blessing. The economy prospers while the environment suffers. Environmental quality has especially deteriorated in South Korean cities such as Seoul and Pusan, which are full of high-rise apartments and automobiles. Air quality has declined with excessive auto emissions. Even in the countryside there are increasing pesticide drifts that poison the air. Korea's important freshwater and ocean resources are damaged by overexploitation, toxic runoff, and siltation.
The natural soils of Korea’s mountainous terrain are poor. Yet many centuries of careful cultivation and fertilization by traditional farmers have brought significant improvement. Today special chemical fertilizers and pesticides are widely used in plant cultivation, and traditional varieties of rice have been replaced by genetically engineered rice almost everywhere. Slightly more arable land is available in the South (19%) than in the North (14%), but food production, transportation and the exchange system in the South is much more efficient than in the North. However, agriculture no longer constitutes the major sector of the economy of either South Korea (only 8%) or North Korea (only 25%). Both are now industrial and/or service economies, and their resource needs have changed dramatically.
Urban-industrial economies have tremendous energy needs. If the domestic energy resources essential to economic growth are lacking, they must be imported. For example, Korea lacks petroleum resources. In South Korea the export of manufactured goods from light industries pays for petroleum imports to support modern manufacturing industries and transportation networks as well as to satisfy residential and commercial demands.
Fortunately, the peninsula’s many rivers and streams also have been generous producers of electrical energy for urban-industrial growth. In addition North Korea has had plenty of coal and iron as well as other minerals (lead, tungsten, zinc, graphite, magnetite, copper, gold, pyrites, salt and fluorspar) for industrial development. South Korea has coal (and some tungsten, graphite, molybdenum, and lead) but must import iron ore to support its heavy industries. Nuclear power plants have also been built in both North and South Korea to help offset insufficient energy resources.
With South Korea's recent “miracle” economy, its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is fifteen times greater than that of North Korea. South Korea’s successful economic strategy is due to: 1) increasing the output of export industries while limiting the import of consumer goods and 2) pushing the labor force to work harder and sacrifice more. Unlike South Korea, which is a major player in the global capitalist economy, North Korea continues to adhere to communism and economic self-sufficiency. The result is lower living standards and slower economic development. Recent reports have indicated that there may even be widespread malnutrition and starvation in North Korea.