April 3, 2013

N. Korea refuses to let S. Koreans enter joint factory

Kim Yong-Ho and Sam Kim / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

In this Sept. 21, 2012, photo, North Korean workers assemble Western-style suits at the South Korean-run ShinWon Corp. garment factory inside the Kaesong industrial complex in Kaesong, North Korea.

AP

Its March 30 statement published by North Korea's KCNA news agency said "no one can see an inch ahead as regards the destiny" of Kaesong. It characterized the continued existence of the industrial park as a "very unusual thing" in light of tensions on the Korean peninsula.

About 120 South Korean companies operate factories in Kaesong which produced $470 million of goods such as clocks, clothing and shoes last year that are trucked back to the South for export to other countries. The industrial park is crucial for the small businesses that operate there to take advantage of North Korea's low wages but not important for the South Korean economy overall.

It has more significance to cash-strapped North Korea since, according to the South Korean government, wages for North Korean workers totaled some $81 million last year. On top of that, nearly all the trade between the Koreas, which totaled $2 billion in 2012, passed through Kaesong. North Korea appearing to act against its own interests with Kaesong has underlined the risks that its brinkmanship will result in a miscalculation that results in an even more dangerous polarization of the Korean peninsula.

Barring entry to South Koreas is a "slap in the face" after the South Korean government recently extended medical aid to the North, said Lee Choon-kun, a North Korea researcher at the Korea Economic Research Institute, a Seoul-based think tank. "I see this as a start for more provocative actions," he said.

"The North has made too many threats to stop short of any real action."

Kaesong, initially conceived as a test case for reunification and reconciliation, also provides an irksome reminder for Pyongyang that what it lacks, the South has in abundance — material prosperity. An enormous gap emerged between the two Koreas in the decades after the Korean War as the South embraced a form of state-directed capitalism while the North adhered to communist central planning.

Every morning, North Korean workers commute to the complex on the edge of Kaesong on South Korean-made Hyundai buses. Once inside the gates of the complex, it's a world apart. The paved streets and sidewalks are marked with South Korean traffic signals and signs and the parking lots are filled with the Hyundai, Samsung and KIA cars driven by South Korean managers.

Inside several factories visited by The Associated Press last year, the posters on the walls are not party slogans but safety warnings. "Beware of fires," read one; "Wash your hands" read another. While most factories in North Korea are drafty, and few have running water, the facilities in Kaesong are equipped with hot water, flush toilets and air conditioners.

In the rest of the Korean Peninsula, it is illegal for Koreans from North and South to interact without government permission. But inside Kaesong, North Korean workers work side by side with South Korean managers, discussing orders and mapping out production.

However, they tend not to socialize with one another. At most factories, North Korean workers take their meals in cafeterias that serve basic stews and rice while the South Koreans dine separately.

Park Yun-kyu, who heads a men's apparel maker that employs 700 North Korean workers in Kaesong, said he was worried he couldn't send fresh food to his eight South Korean workers in Kaesong.

"They were working normally when I called them in the morning," said Park who returned to Seoul after being refused entry into Kaesong. "The problem is food. I hope North Korea would at least let us send food. We have to send food and some materials for production every day."

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