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World Media Gets First Glimpse of North-South Korea Joint Industrial Zone


North and South Korea gave the international media their first up close look at a joint industrial complex - hailed as the economic future of the divided peninsula.

South Korea calls the Kaesong industrial complex a "peace project" and views it as a living laboratory for eventual reconciliation with the North.

In short, South Korean business funds the industrial park and North Korea provides very cheap labor. The Kaesong project, just several hundred meters from the Demilitarized Zone, was agreed to almost six years ago - the year of the historic summit between North and South Korea.

Monday's inaugural tour for foreign media began with a South Korean promotional video, spelling out that this joint venture is as much about a political vision as it is about economics.

"The Kaesong Industrial Complex, where conflicts are thawing, where reconciliations are being made, and new hopes are being manufactured," explains a video.

Now 11 South Korean companies have begun operating factories in the Kaesong complex since ground was broken three years ago. They employ about 6,000 North Korean workers, mainly producing labor-intensive goods like textiles and sneakers - directed mainly at the South Korean market.

But those figures are expected to triple or quadruple in the next year. In five years, it is hoped Kaesong will employ nearly 750,000 North Koreans and occupy 67 square kilometers in the impoverished North.

South Korean authorities describe the Kaesong zone as a triumph of Seoul's engagement policy with the communist North, where Cold War mistrust is being broken down by interpersonal contact.

Kim Dong-keun, president of the South Korean Committee, which co-manages the zone, says the 489 South Koreans who work in Kaesong receive special training on interacting with North Koreans.

"You have to be cautious in approaching the North Koreans, so you have to be trained in that sense. You have to learn the unique culture here," he said.

For South Korean managers, Kaesong is considered a hardship posting, where they often go weeks without contacting their families in the South. As a result, many of them receive as much as $2,500 extra pay per month.

On this typical Kaesong sneaker factory floor, the pay is much different for the six dozen North Korean women who earn about 25 cents an hour.

That comes to less than $225 per month according to the South Koreans. All the money is paid to North Korean government labor brokers and it is not clear how much actually reaches the North Korean factory worker.

Though North Korean workers there are getting a first taste of capitalist production, they are still kept under tight control by Pyongyang. Despite firm instructions not to speak to any of the workers, many reporters cannot resist asking a quick question or two.

A woman in her 40s says she was selected by the North Korean government to work in Kaesong, but says she is not allowed to talk about her salary.

Later, another woman says she receives only enough for living expenses. Nearly all the workers are housed in the Kaesong complex in areas separated from South Koreans by fences and checkpoints.

South Korean officials say they have no monitoring mechanism in place to ensure the workers receive their full salary, at this point, they say, they take the North Korean government's word for it.

Until now, Seoul has only permitted the international media to view the Kaesong zone at a distance. Monday's tour for reporters coincides with efforts to push forward a free trade agreement between South Korea and the United States. Washington has indicated reluctance to include Kaesong-produced goods in that agreement because of major disputes with North Korea over nuclear weapons.

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