Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week’s question is:
What do you think of the closing of the Kaesong Industrial Complex?
When inter-Korean problems or issues arise, the Kaesong Industrial Complex almost always comes under the magnifying glass. The current South Korean administration asserts that it is taking a strong stance against North Korea’s nuke tests. However, the shutdown of the complex has a negative impact not only on North Korea but also on South Korea.
Of course, I’m not an expert; I’m not an economist. So, I cannot present statistics to show you the exact amount of money South Korea will be losing. But I don’t have to be an expert to know that the shutdown will negatively impact ordinary North Korean people as well as South Koreans who run their businesses in Kaesong Industrial Complex.
A few days ago, I paid a visit to a flag store selling goods produced in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. I was always told that many kinds of goods were being produced at Kaesong. However, it was astonishing to see such a wide variety of goods on display. The goods ranged from clothes to food. It was almost touching to know that all of them were made by ordinary North Korean workers. At the same time, I wondered to myself, “What did these North Korean workers think while making such beautiful clothes and shoes of high quality?”
Even hiking boots were sold at that shop. For those of you don’t know already, hiking boots don’t exist in North Korea. I wondered if the North Koreans knew what hiking boots even were while they were making them. Did they assume that they were ordinary shoes? Do they get to wear any of the clothes they made?
Right at that moment, the friend who tagged along with me to the shop asked: “Do you think the North Korean workers are given these clothes, as well? Would they get to wear these shoes, too?”
… people used to say, ‘If you have one person in the family who works for Kaesong Industrial Complex, it can feed the mouths of everyone in their family’
“Well … I don’t know,” I replied. I wanted to know, but there’s no way of finding out. However, I’m already aware of the benefits of gaining employment at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. When I was still living in North Korea, people used to say, “If you have one person in the family who works for Kaesong Industrial Complex, it can feed the mouths of everyone in their family.”
In 2009, I met someone from Kaesong. He was saying that his daughter was working in the Kaesong Industrial Complex and he told me that the working conditions were highly satisfactory. According to him, his daughter is given lunch during lunchbreak and is entitled to not only a regular wage but a rice portion and coal briquettes to survive during the winter. All of these benefits sounded too good to be true.
This doesn’t sound impressive at all to South Koreans. But for North Korean workers that’s more than one could ever ask for. Therefore, the Kaesong Industrial Complex is a highly desirable workplace for most people in the North. Only those who are well-connected can hope for employment opportunities there. Thus, it is not always people from Kaesong who end up working at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. People from other regions who are well-connected may end up working there.
This is not surprising. My hometown was near the Sino-North Korean border and, thus, there were some companies run by Chinese as well as trade companies operated by both Chinese and North Koreans. You need to know someone powerful if you wanted to be employed by one of these companies. Extra benefits they were entitled to included 20kgs of rice per month and they were given sweets and liquor on holidays such as Chusok. That’s all, really, yet many people fought for that job. Such benefits are not attractive to South Koreans but meant a lot to North Korean workers, so much so that other North Koreans may not believe that such benefits and gifts could be given to workers.
After arriving in South Korea, I began to realize that all of the things this guy from Kaesong said were true. When I think about old days in the North, I help myself to choco pies since it’s so easy to buy one now. But choco pies tasted so much better in the North. My mother loved choco pies but we couldn’t eat them as often as we’d have liked since they were expensive there. I wish my mother were here with me in South Korea. I would buy choco pies for her whenever she wanted since they are so cheap here in the South.
The South Koreans we picture in the North are fair-skinned, gentle people speaking a Seoul dialect who have no worries in life
I once dreamed of working at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, but it wasn’t for choco pies. I thought I would get to meet South Koreans in person if I worked there. I had only saw South Koreans on the TV screen. The South Koreans we picture in the North are fair-skinned, gentle people speaking a Seoul dialect who have no worries in life. I was not the only one who felt this way: One of my friends was the daughter of a high-ranking official. After seeing Kwon Sang-woo on the South Korean drama Stairway to Heaven she spent the next few days in bed, saying, “I could leave my family only if I could meet Kwon Sang-woo just once.”
The reason I’m telling you all of this, including the story of my spoiled friend, is to show you what kind of impact Kaesong Industrial Complex has had on ordinary North Korean people. Through watching South Korean dramas, it is very easy for ordinary North Koreans to learn that South Korea is far more advanced and developed than North Korea. What is more important is that these North Koreans learn that South Koreans are paid for the labor and services they provide. That’s why it’s unfortunate that the Kaesong Industrial Complex shut down. Also, those ordinary North Korean workers could lose their jobs suddenly just because the government decided to shut down their business. It is a matter of survival for those people.
Last but not least, it is the South Korean businesspeople who have no choice but to pull their business out of Kaesong just because their government decided to shut down the complex. Of course, the North Korean government is responsible for the nuclear and rocket tests and the South Korean government has every reason to take a strong approach to this problem.
But it is my personal opinion that the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial complex is worse news for South Korean businessmen within the Kaesong complex than for the North Korean regime.
Main image: futurecode1
The above is the perspective of the author, and may not be representative of all North Korean defectors.
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Editing by Rob York and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld