At Gaeseong, bonds form between Koreans from North and South

Lee Yong-in

The Gaeseong (Kaesong) Industrial Complex is a gauge of conditions on the Korean peninsula. Operations there were nearly stopped outright in the wake of the North Korean nuclear and missile tests. Yet now, thanks to the February 13 agreement on the North’s denuclearization forged at the six-party talks as well as the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA), operations have picked up at the industrial park.

In particular, the FTA negotiations have brought the industrial complex new interest from around the world. The agreement reached opened up the possibility of products manufactured at Gaeseong being exported to the U.S ., albeit only after the North meets certain conditions. Whether or not Gaeseong goes beyond spurring North-South economic cooperation and becomes a pillar for peace in East Asia remains to be seen.

The Hankyoreh went on location from March 27 to 30 to take a closer look.

GAESEONG INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX – March 29, 6:45 a.m. Before the dawn clears, the rush to work begins. At the intersection that divides the factory buildings, three or four buses stop in front of a sign reading “Gaeseong Industrial Zone” and North Korean workers pour out. There are approximately 80-100 workers on each bus. Shown to the press for the first time since operations began two years ago, the scene resembles the crowded morning commute on Seoul subway line No. 2.

The clothes worn by the female workers are similar to those worn by the women in Pyongyang, as witnessed during a visit last October. Some even wear the long coats now fashionable in the South. Yellow, pink and checkered, the clothes they wear are of all colors and patterns. Wearing makeup and linking elbows as they walked, their smiling faces were as graceful as the flowers of fall. The streets and buildings were sparkling, as well. The chromatic coloring of the complex contrasts clearly with that of the achromatic Guro Digital Complex in the early 1990s in Seoul.

There are more than 1,200 North Korean laborers working in the 22 factories that have so far set up shop at Gaeseong during the complex’s preliminary and first stages. Ninety percent of them commute to work by bus. As the start of operations nears at 7:10 a.m., the workers flood the sidewalks and streets before entering their respective factories. Their paces were hurried and nimble.

“Welcome! I’m glad you’re here!” Four South Korean employees greet the North Korean workers at the gate to Shinwon’s factory. Regardless of rain and snow, they have been there to give their morning greetings to the workers. Among them stands director Hwang U-seung, who recalled “I was most happy when the North Korean workers expressed their gratitude to me for greeting them here every morning.”

As the time of dividing among interested companies the remaining 530,000 pyeong site of the first project draws near (one pyeong is 3.3 square meters), the commute to work promises to become only more complicated. The reason is that after the end of the first stage of development – around the first half of next year – some 7,000 to 10,000 North Korean workers will take up work at the site.

Currently, it is logistically impractical to transport over 10,000 workers every morning by the current 49 buses to meet the start of operations, which is between 7:10 and 8:10 a.m. In particular, in order to meet the 7:10 bell, the women workers must wake up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. so as to make breakfast, walk 20 minutes to the city bus stop, and ride the bus for 20-30 minutes to work.

The Gaeseong Industrial District Management Committee is rushing to find a solution to the commuting problem. There is a plan to build housing within the complex so that 20,000-40,000 workers can commute by foot. Furthermore, if the two Koreas restore the railway line between Seoul and Pyongyang, a project currently being discussed, there is also talk of adding a special commuter train between the workers’ lodgings and Gaesong on the line. In addition, negotiations are underway with the industries present over purchasing more buses or increasing bicycle use.

March 28, 10:00 a.m. The Gaeseong management committee grew hectic. Word came that former Minister of Unification Jeong Dong-yeong’s entourage would arrive in one to two minutes. This reporter jumped into a car so that he would not disturb Minister Jeong’s visit, and drove over to a factory built by the South Korean shoemaker Racere, where he took turns experiencing the work of a typical Gaeseong laborer.

At the factory, seven North Korean workers, their work clothing on and their sleeves rolled up, were gluing the soles of shoes. This reporter also changed into the work clothes and rolled his sleeves up.

After a glance of encouragement from the North Korean laborers, I started to apply glue to the shoes, as well. I was nervous and embarrassed due to my misapplication of the glue. Smiling, the North Korean forewoman Kim Gyeong-sun (45) said, “It looks easy, but it’s really difficult. That’s why newcomers have to be strictly trained.” Kim then taught me in detail the method of holding the brush, the amount of glue to use, and the way of coating the bottoms of the shoes. As if taking on the role of teacher, an animated expression danced across her face.

But after about 30 minutes, the brushes began to harden. Noticing this, a laborer brought me a new brush. “It is a bad brush that is hindering you work,” the North Korean teased, smiling. Asked whether two of the workers had boyfriends, one worker responded, “you think I’d want to marry so soon?” At this, coworkers Jo Jeong-hui and Kim Eun-gyeong, both 19, grinned widely.

As the atmosphere became lighter, Kim Gyeong-sun began bragging about her children. Her 20-year-old eldest son was in the military, and her second son, 18, was studying hard at a mining college, she reported. Aware that their mother was working at Gaeseong, they expressed their support for her “good work.” Asked whether her salary was sufficient to get by, she responded, “More than the money, I feel pride at the fact that North and South are working together.” A model answer, to be sure.

At 12, the lunch bell rang. As she was leaving, a worker offered to make me into “an honorary worker” there, urging me to come back to visit often.

March 28, noon. I joined for lunch the workers of a factory built by South Korean shoe maker Racere. After finishing the meal, I peeked at the North Korean cafeteria. The North Korean workers seem to bring their own rice to supplement the soup provided. When Gaeseong first opened, the North Korean workers were reluctant to visits by the Southerners in their cafeteria during lunchtime. But as the months passed, the atmosphere changed. Now, the South Koreans who sometimes pay a visit to the North Korean cafeteria are now met with warm greetings by the workers.

March 28, 5:00 p.m. The Shinwon workers head home after a day of work. At one corner of the factory, there is a “general meeting” where production totals are compared with goals. The North Koreans are used to performing such checks two to three times a day. The workers change into their regular clothes and sign out using their personal ID cards. As they scan their cards, a picture of them as well as their personal information flashes on the monitor. Those working into the evening gather for a simple supper of ramen and rice in the cafeteria.

At seven in the evening, twilight comes to Gaeseong Industrial Complex, which glows beneath the stars. Nearly all of the factories keep their lights bright, and the streetlamps gently light up the surroundings. Those working into the night that day numbered over 6,000, just about half of the entire Gaeseong workforce.


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