Over the last two decades, the border with China has become North Korea’s major window to the outside world. This border, which until 2010 had been essentially unprotected and which remains quite porous nowadays, has served as a channel for ideas, fashions, images and knowledge to get into the hitherto tightly sealed North Korea. However, over the last 10 years, another window opened: the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC).
The KIC is located just north of the DMZ in the city of Kaesong. At present, there are almost 55,000 North Korean workers employed by the 125 South Korean companies operating there. These workers produce everything from clothes to household items.
Some critics of the place have described the KIC as a “modern-day slave camp,” but this is, to be frank, just demagogic posturing.
It is true that North Korean workers receive only a fraction of their modest official salary which now, including overtime and special benefits, exceeds $150 a month. While no official data on the actual income has ever been released, it has been rumored that the average North Korean worker in the KIC actually takes home $34 to $50 a month. This probably does not sound like great money to many readers, but we should keep in mind what this actually means: KIC employment is by far the best-paid official factory job to be found in North Korea. In most cases, the average North Korean factory worker takes home the equivalent of 50-70 cents a month. One should therefore not be surprised that there is stiff competition for jobs at the KIC.
Even official North Korean delegations when visiting the KIC for the first time as minders of South Korean and Western ‘guests’…cannot hide their admiration for the facility
Given the size of the population in the area, it seems that pretty much every single family in the city of Kaesong and its immediate vicinity has a family member or close relative/friend currently working at the KIC. So stories about the place are bound to have spread across the area. Such stories are impressive indeed. Even official North Korean delegations when visiting the KIC for the first time as minders of South Korean and Western “guests” (i.e. industrial managers, engineers and the like) cannot hide their admiration for the facility. The KIC is basically the same as any other industrial zone in South Korea, but for Northerners it seems like a futuristic wonderland, something out of a utopian sci-fi novel: The roads are paved, the streetlights are bright, electricity is available around the clock and air conditioning is fitted as standard in all buildings.
Even though North Korean propaganda says that the KIC is essentially a way to help the struggling South Korean economy – without the largess of the North – virtually no one in the area believes the story. On the contrary, North Korean workers are all too aware that most of the South Korean companies operating in the area are small and not particularly successful in the South. Thus, they deduce the fact that other companies in the South, more mainstream and larger ones, are even richer and provide even better conditions for their employees.
No wonder that news of this industrial and technological miracle has long since spread across the North. North Koreans know well that “in Kaesong, South Korean companies pay workers an arm and a leg, and to top it off, they even give their workers snacks.”
AS KOREAN AS CHOCO-PIE
Indeed, the snacks are important. Many South Korean companies in the zone provide their North Korean personnel with the now renowned “choco-pie” (a South Korean chocolate-coated marshmallow cake) and “shin ramyeon” (a South Korean brand of instant noodles). Both of them are cheap junk food in South Korea, but north of the border, they are delicacies affordable only for the privileged few. Most KIC workers do not eat their snacks on-site, they bring them home to share with their fortunate families or sell them on the market. South Korean junk food sells in North Korea for about twice its retail value in South Korea.
Obviously, the North Korean officials realized that the popularity of the sweat snacks is politically dangerous, so in summer 2014 the South Korean companies were ordered not to deliver the choco-pies to their workers. This will hardly make a difference: in due time, other types of cheap snacks are likely to replace the politically subversive marshmallow cake.
Another popular item taken from the KIC (both legally and illegally) is cosmetics. In North Korea (similar to China), South Korean cosmetics now enjoy great popularity. So workers who manage to get hold of South Korean shampoo, moisturizer or soap and take them home with them are likely to make a killing reselling these products, or alternatively, enjoy consuming them with great satisfaction and pride.
As you might have gathered, theft is a usual problem for South Korean companies in the zone. Indeed, the constant theft of brand labels is especially notable; South Korean footwear and clothing enjoy a great deal of popularity in North Korea, so many enterprising workers steal labels and make money reselling them. Indeed, the labels are used to make counterfeit South Korean-branded clothing and other products in the many unofficial workshops that flourish around the KIC.
Such seemingly useless waste products as scrap cloth, wire and springs are widely used by local handicraftsmen who find imaginative ways to utilize what South Korean manufacturers discard
Surprisingly, even industrial garbage is valued in the region. In some cases, a truckload of garbage can be sold for as much as $1,500 on the black market. Such seemingly useless waste products as scrap cloth, wire and springs are widely used by local handicraftsmen who find imaginative ways to utilize what South Korean manufacturers discard. Even empty bottles, cardboard boxes and discarded plastic bags are collected, sold and reused.
Indeed, the last decade has seen the emergence of a number of cottage industries that rely upon industrial waste produced by KIC factories.
Not everything South Korean is popular in the Kaesong area, however. According to some reports, the locals are not particularly fond of South Korean meat and poultry that have found their way from KIZ canteens to the local markets. Of course, any kind of meat is still a luxury item in North Korea, but on balance, North Korean gourmets prefer locally raised pork and chicken. They find smuggled South Korean stuff too bland and tasteless. This might indeed be the price to be paid for the industrial meat farming. Thus, there is more demand for locally produced meat than South Korean imports in the Kaesong market.
Thus, the KIC’s existence has ensured that knowledge of the outside world is spreading not only in the northern-most part of the country, but also in a strategically vital area close to Pyongyang. One can surmise that the average Pyongyang dweller might be unaware about developments in the Chinese border, but he/she is likely to have a clear picture of what is going on just 150 km south of Pyongyang. Such knowledge is not going to change his/her worldview overnight, but it will further reinforce their understanding that, contrary to what the official media used to say, the South is not a starving colony of the U.S. imperialists but rather a successful and affluent country whose economic riches are almost unimaginable North Korean standards.
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Featured Image: choco pie! by killrbeez on 2005-07-31 12:37:42