DPRK feeling some effects of global econ downturn

The global financial crisis/recession is affecting some of the DPRK’s most visible assets. 

The first example comes from the Kaesong Industrial Zone, where South Korean firms are obliged to pay North Korean workers’ wages in $US directly to the North Korean government.  Since the South Korean Won/$US exchange rate has risen significantly in recent months, companies in the Zone have seen their labor costs (denominated in $US) soar.  Since wages are fixed and firms are unable to lay off workers, some have responded by simply not paying wages—which does not affect the workers so much as it does the North Korean government’s finances, since it keeps most of the funds.

Quoting from Radio Free Asia:

Authorities in North Korea have warned South Korean companies in its Kaesong industrial area they must pay workers’ wages or face fines, as many investors begin to feel the effects of the economic downturn.

Lee Lim-dong, secretary general of the Committee of the Association of Enterprises Invested in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, said the issue of unpaid salaries was brought up late last year but had now become a formal demand.

“This time around, official notification was issued to all South Korean enterprises invested in Kaesong, through the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee (KIDMC),” Lee said.

South Korean businesses invested in Kaesong have already incurred serious losses due to the depreciation of the South Korean won against the U.S. dollar, according to Kim Kyu Chol, head of the Forum for Inter-Korean Relations, a Seoul-based group monitoring inter-Korean business relations.

“They already have to spend 30-45 percent more on labor [because of this],” he said, adding that the lives of South Korean entrepreneurs in the Kaesong economic zone would now be even more difficult.

… 

According to Park Yong-man, director of Green Textile Co.—a South Korean company invested in Kaesong—“The official notification was sent to all South Korean companies in Kaesong on Feb. 10.”

Meanwhile, Kim said, one South Korean electroplating company had already failed to pay its North Korean workers for more than three months and had been suspended.

Seven South Korean companies in Kaesong are currently unable to pay their North Korean workers on time and will soon be in bigger trouble because of the new measures, Kim said.

South Korean companies operating in Kaesong are not allowed to recruit or dismiss North Korean staff directly, and North Korean authorities impose quotas of staffing numbers on them.

In early February, North Korean officials said that salaries of North Korean supervisors watching over the night shift at South Korean enterprises in Kaesong would have to increase by 200-300 percent, putting further pressure on labor costs.

And companies can be suspended from operations for failing to pay their employees for more than a month.

Kim said South Korean companies in Kaesong don’t need more supervisors or clerical workers, which the North Korean side has sought.

“They are already facing a managerial crisis, and a [demanded] 50 percent increase in the number of North Korean managerial staff is pushing it too hard,” he said, adding that South Korean enterprises would find this hard to accept.

Until recently, the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee (KIDMC), a joint North-South panel overseeing the complex, was responsible for half of the U.S. $10 a month transportation allowance given to North Korean workers in Kaesong.

North Korea demanded as of Jan. 1 that South Korea Kaesong companies must now pay the entire cost.

Now hard bargaining can pay off sometimes, especially for North Korea, but with all that has happened in the Zone recently it seems as if the DPRK actually wants these businesses to leave.  The DPRK’s negotiators are smart enough to know that the pie is shrinking and they naturally want to protect their share, but unfortunately they don’t yet seem to appreciate that their actions will have serious ramifications on future investment in the Zone once the global economy turns the corner.

Example No. 2: Unfortunately, recent economic conditions have also reduced the number of South Korean tourists venturing abroad where they might enjoy diversions such as eating in a North Korean-owned restaurant.

Quoting from Japan Probe:

Ever since a North Korean government restaurant opened in Bangkok two years ago, the Japanese press have been regularly visiting the place with hidden cameras to catch a glimpse of its dinnertime performances. However, it has now been discovered that the restaurant recently went out of business.

Most of its business had come from South Korean tourists, but the weakening of the won and the decline in tourism to Thailand due to the airport protests seem to have dealt a death blow to the restaurant. Attempts to contact North Korea-run restaurants in Cambodia and Vietnam failed, suggesting that those restaurants may have also gone under. It has also been said that a similar North Korean restaurant in China has suffered a big drop in business.

Read the RFA article here:
North Korea Warning Over Labor
Radio Free Asia
J.W. Noh
9/26/2009

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