NKorea’s capitalist enclave seeks foreign support

AFP (Hat Tip DPRK Studies)
Simon Martin

The managers of this capitalist enclave in communist North Korea are appealing for the world’s support, saying their experiment in free markets can pave the way for regional peace.

Diplomats who toured the Kaesong Industrial Complex Tuesday were urged to set aside worries over the North’s nuclear programme and to invest in the complex adjacent to the world’s last and heavily fortified Cold War frontier.

“I know you are concerned about the political situation on the peninsula but I strongly believe inter-Korean projects can help reduce tension,” Kim Chul-Soon told lunch guests of diplomats and reporters who toasted the project with North Korean “Wild Flower” wine to the strains of Mozart.

Kim is executive vice-president of Hyundai Asan, the South Korean firm which since 1998 has invested 1.2 billion dollars in Kaesong and in the North Korean tourist resort of Mount Kumgang on the east coast.

Work began at Kaesong in 2005 and the complex now has 22 factories with five more under construction. The workforce totals some 12,100 North Koreans, including construction workers, and 700 from the South.

Ambitious plans, strongly backed by the South Korean government, call for some 2,000 companies employing 350,000 people by 2020.

A management committee of the two sides touts Kaesong as “the hope for the future” of the two Koreas, which had almost no economic exchanges until a groundbreaking summit in 2000.

Committee chairman Kim Dong-Kun noted that Kaesong was one of the battlegrounds of the 1950-53 war which cemented the peninsula’s division.

“I am confident it will pave the way for peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia but I realise this will only be through strong international support,” he told diplomats.

Visitors to Kaesong are greeted by a portrait of North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung, who died in 1994, as they pass through the heavily fortified frontier zone.

But the fenced-off complex, funded almost entirely by the South, is otherwise a propaganda-free zone. North Korean officials refer to “South Korea” rather than the “south side,” as official media terms its neighbouring nation.

Pictures of North Korea’s Kim dynasty are not in evidence, apart from on lapel badges, and presentations praise the private sector.

Managers say they want to emulate Shenzhen, the special economic zone bordering Hong Kong which kick-started China’s economic boom. But unlike in Shenzhen, North Korean workers — described as diligent, well-educated and eager to learn — cannot spend their wages as they wish.

Companies pay the basic wage, 57 dollars and 50 cents a month for a 48-hour working week, to North Korean officials.

The officials, on average, return 15-20 percent to the worker in North Korean won and the remainder in the form of food and other essentials.

Given the North’s crumbling command economy and persistent food shortages, jobs at Kaesong are still apparently desirable.

“Because North and South Korea are working together, it feels great because unification will come sooner,” said one female worker at the ShinWon textile factory in a typical response.

Asked how much she earns, she told AFP through an interpreter that “we earn enough to make a living and keep our stomachs full.”

Kaesong’s supporters say it will narrow the huge economic gap between North and South but they seek foreign support. Apart from one Japan-invested joint venture, all factories at present are owned by South Korean companies which enjoy tax breaks to invest.

Six sites have been set aside for overseas firms in the first phase.

Goods are labelled “Made in Korea” and are covered by Seoul’s free trade deals with Southeast Asia. But the United States, which sealed an FTA with South Korea recently, agreed only to consider the Kaesong issue later.

The aim is also to revitalise South Korea’s small- and medium-size firms, especially textile companies which are struggling against competition from cheaper Chinese labour. Textiles account for almost half of Kaesong’s total production worth 115 million dollars since it opened.


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