News / Asia

Kaesong Industrial Zone's Hidden Human Face

Visitors look at the industrial complex in Kaesong, North Korea, through binoculars at Dora Observation Post in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) near the border village of Panmunjom, in Paju, South Korea, April 9, 2013.
Visitors look at the industrial complex in Kaesong, North Korea, through binoculars at Dora Observation Post in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) near the border village of Panmunjom, in Paju, South Korea, April 9, 2013.
Reuters
The hidden human face of North Korea's decision to shutter an industrial park it ran with Seoul is its 53,000-strong workforce. At the Kaesong industrial zone, North Korean workers earned regular wages and formed bonds with their southern compatriots, even flirting once in a while.

North Korea's most skilled laborers have kept South Korean factories at the park humming for nearly a decade, at the same time putting food on the tables of an estimated 200,000 people in one of the world's poorest countries.

Kaesong was also the only place where people from the two Koreas mixed following the closure of a joint mountain resort in 2008 during an earlier bout of tension on the Korean peninsula.

As ties between the two Koreas worsened in the wake of Pyongyang's Feb. 12 nuclear test, some North Korean workers at Kaesong spoke about their fears for the future.

"We've talked with each other a bit," said Shin Dong-chul, a 55-year-old South Korean truck driver who last left Kaesong on March 30. "Although we didn't say a lot, they were also worried ... about their work."

Pyongyang suspended activity at Kaesong on Monday after barring access last week, all but closing down the last symbol of Korean cooperation. North Korea said no decision had been made on whether it would reopen the park, which lies on the outskirts of the city of Kaesong, just inside the country's heavily-fortified border with the South.

"Better Than Chinese Workers"

South Korean firms paid $130 a month for each worker to a North Korean state agency which then redistributed part of the cash in local currency and vouchers accepted at state-run stores.

A single North Korean worker at Kaesong was responsible for the livelihoods of three others, a South Korean government official said on condition of anonymity due to the tensions.

"That's 200,000 North Koreans that Kaesong was feeding," said the official.

North Korea has blamed the South for the suspension at Kaesong, but especially bristled at suggestions from Seoul it would keep the park running because of the money it brings in.

The 123 small and medium-sized firms in the zone churned out $2 billion a year in clothing, shoes and other goods.

One South Korean businessman whose firm has been at Kaesong since the park began shipments in 2004 said North Koreans were ideal workers because they were industrious and spoke Korean.

"We've operated in third countries before, but they are by far the best workers, much better than the Chinese," said the executive, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized by the firm's owners to speak to the media.

South Korean made Choco-pie snacks were initially handed out by employers as incentive bonuses, creating a black market in Kaesong city where North Korean workers would trade them for cash.

Over the years those perks have grown to include instant noodles, sausages and on national holidays, boshing-tang, a spicy dog meat stew, or chicken, the South Korean official said.

Most workers would get to use the communal bath once a week, officials said, although sometimes things got a little hot.

One worker who left Kaesong last week recalled an incident where a South Korean man and a North Korean woman were seen leaving a quiet part of a factory together. The man was soon asked to leave the zone.

"If a South Korean worker flirts with a North Korean worker, he would be immediately kicked out," said the South Korean.

More normal was North Korean guards cadging cigarettes from their southern neighbors.

When Kaesong began shipping goods, it was touted as a symbol of reconciliation under the "Sunshine Policy" of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who went to Pyongyang in 2000 to meet then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

In 2005, Shinwon Corporation, which makes mid-range clothing, even held a fashion show that stunned the North Korean workers who attended, according to those present. The show featured a young South Korean actress using a catwalk built on the second floor of the company's factory at the time.

And Cheaper

Visitors who cross the border travel five km (three miles) through a barren landscape before reaching the factory park, built by a subsidiary of South Korea's Hyundai conglomerate and North Korea's state-run Land & Housing Corporation.

Hyundai-built buses take North Koreans to the park, which occupies 3.3 million square meters on the outskirts of Kaesong city, once the seat of an ancient Korean dynasty. For centuries, the Kaesong region prospered as a commercial center, with Pyongyang 160 km (100 miles) to the north and Seoul 60 km (38 miles) to the south and rich farmland to the west.

The zone is powered by electricity from across the border and fuel trucked in from the South.

When it opened, many companies were attracted by the promise of skilled labor at a fraction of the wages in South Korea.

"We applied to be one of the 15 companies going into Kaesong in 2004," an official at an apparel maker said, requesting anonymity. "We had some trade experience with North Korea in the 1990s and knew North Korean workers had excellent manual skills, so we were looking for an opportunity to go in."

Women were preferred because they were seen as more productive, friendlier and paid more attention to detail, said another South Korean official who was involved in setting up the project.

"And the women seemed to genuinely like working there," the official said.

The project was also regarded as a test bed for the eventual reunification of the two Koreas, where the capitalist South would rescue the North's broken economy.

"We have the discipline, the intelligence and the will," a North Korean official told visiting journalists in the late 2000s as the two sides were planning to link their railways, another project of the Sunshine era that has gone nowhere. All that was needed, he said, was for the wealthy South to invest.

You May Like

Israelis Quietly Expand Enclave in Palestinian District of Jerusalem

Estimated 500 settlers, armed or protected by paramilitary police, live in Silwan among 50,000 Palestinians More

Video US, Iran Face Similar Challenges in Syrian Fight Against IS

Both Washington, Tehran back fighters battling Islamic State militants in Iraq -- but in Syria they support opposing sides in country’s civil war More

China Boosts Efforts to Help Afghan, Regional Stability

Observers say China’s increased regional involvement are due to concerns that Afghan instability and the presence of anti-China militants in Pakistani border areas could fuel Xinjiang troubles More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid