“Right now, I feel like I could just smash my head to death with a rock,” Park Yong-man, CEO of a business based at the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), told NK News just a few hours after Seoul shut down the plant on the afternoon of February 10, 2016.
“I am exploding with anger… I have spent my most precious years – over a decade – establishing my company at the KIC, now it is all gone.”
The surprise move was aimed at pressuring North Korea, the South Korean government said, after the North conducted its fourth nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch in January and February last year.
“It was an unavoidable choice,” Hong Yong-pyo, the South Korean Minister of Unification later said, defending the decision to shut down the compound. But in the eyes of Park and Lee Joung-deok, whose entire lives were tied to the KIC, that day was a disaster.
184 South Korean employees were still inside the compound on the day the shutdown announcement came
Speaking with NK News a few weeks ago, two former CEOs from the KIC said they still cannot fully comprehend how such a momentous decision was made at such short notice and so quickly – without a plausible explanation given to those who worked at the complex.
“So, the Ministry of Unification (MoU) on the evening of February 9th contacted us, asked to come to the Office of the South-North Dialogue, on the 2 pm following day,” Park Yong-man, CEO of Greensol, told NK News last month. “They said they have a ‘very grave matter’ to discuss, so I went there.”
When Park and the other KIC officials gathered, Minister of Unification Hong told them that the shutdown of the KIC had been decided.
184 South Korean employees were still inside the compound on the day the shutdown announcement came, and Park urged the minister to announce it after South Korean nationals had left the compound, lying, as it does, in North Korean territory.
“We also asked them to give us just a little time to take the subsidiary material out of the compound. Our business partners’ material were still in there, and they were about to suffer a massive financial damage for ‘trusting’ our company, and delivering the material to us.”
But the response from the minister was: “no,” that there was “no other way,” and that the decision “can’t be reversed,” Park said.
Lee Joung-duk, CEO of Young Inner Foam – a company which did significant work at Kaesong – described the government’s behavior as “childish.”
“So, after two hours of unilateral meetings with the minister, one hour later, the decision was announced to the public.”
“A decision like this, usually, is done after a series of meetings between officials. They would discuss and announce the finalized result later. But no, that wasn’t the case for the KIC. They just announced it to us.”
Soon after the outbreak of South Korea’s so-called “Choi-gate”-scandal last year, North Korean ruling party organ the Rodong Sinmun asked if the closure of the KIC was orchestrated by Choi Soon-sil, an old friend of Park, who, at that time, was reportedly exercising a disproportionate amount of control over President Park Geun-hye’s decision-making.
“At the time of the closure we did not know the name Choi Soon-sil,” Park continued. “But thinking back, I do realize there was one major mystery that remains unanswered.”
According to Park and Lee, on the day of the shutdown, Minister Hong assured the KIC CEOs that the ministry has “already prepared a three-part scenario to shut down the KIC.”
Part of this, Park said, was a plan for how the CEOs might be compensated for their losses, but none of the three-part scenarios came into being.
“I think either Minister Hong was lying about the plan, or his plan, prepared by government officials at the MoU, was ‘somehow’ stopped by a third party,” Park said.
NOTHING LIKE KAESONG
Since the closure, Lee and Park have visited China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Ethiopia and Kenya in the hopes of finding a new location for a factory to replace their work at KIC.
But, both agreed, none of the locations they visited brought the economic benefits that KIC had provided.
“Kenya and Ethiopia were lovely places to build a new factory, but the serious problem was that it would take at least two months to send material and another two months for them to come back with the finished product,” Lee said.
Other parts of the world were either too far from a harbor, transportation was too pricey, or that workers’ salaries would be higher than what they paid at the KIC.
“Now I realize how happy I was in the KIC, for I had been able to use the same language to shout at them”
“The language barrier was the harshest challenge,” Lee said.
Even the best translator in the world would not be able to deliver the nuance that only Koreans could understand, Park agreed.
“Oh yes, I argued a lot with the North Korean workers,” he said. “But now I realize how happy I was in the KIC, for had been able to use the same language to shout at them.”
The South Korean staff were also able to learn about the difficulties that North Koreans face in their day to day lives.
“Can you imagine life without being able to shower your body with warm water?” Park said, saying that the company’s public shower booth was often crowded with North Korean workers who had no other means to wash properly.
“We provided soap, towels, hot water, Kimchi or ramen… something this basic is what North Koreans are living without.”
However, sharing with the North Koreans was not always easy, Park said: once the North Koreans tried to preach about the ‘superiority’ of socialism and Juche.
“I asked a worker if she needed any South Korean made medicine,” Park said. “She responded by saying ‘everything is perfect here in the North as the leader takes care of everything. It is a heaven on earth!'”
“Due to the shutdown, I have lost about KRW7.9 billion (USD 6,952,000)”
WILLING TO GO BACK?
The latest satellite imagery showed that the factories belonging to Lee and Park were both intact, along with the other CEOs’ companies, most likely under North Korean management and being preserved as they were the day when it was shut down.
With leading presidential candidate Moon Jae-in saying he would seek to reopen and majorly expand Kaesong should he win this year’s election, would Park and Lee return to business at the complex?
Both said they would half-welcome a reopening and half-worry about what might happen in the future.
“Due to the shutdown, I have lost about KRW7.9 billion (USD 6,952,000),” Lee said. “Thankfully, about half of it, 3.4 billion, was compensated by the government, but the other half was lost.”
But strictly speaking, this money is “not a compensation at all” in their eyes.
“The moment I decide to return to the KIC in the future, I will have to pay back the government the exact amount money I was ‘compensated’ with,” Lee said.
“It is more like the aid, but not the real compensation,” Park said, who is also in the same situation.
It is not the ministry that they hold a grudge against, the two said, as the government can compensate only within the boundaries of the law.
The real problem lies in what they see as South Korea’s outdated KIC law, written in the idealistic days of the Sunshine Policy, that is preventing the government from taking necessary and swift action to compensate the KIC CEOs.
“If I decide to go back, it must be after more reasonable and updated regulations are set by the government to protect the KIC companies from the future financial damages caused by the political instabilities,” Lee said.
“The KIC is far from being complete. Should the compound get resumed, it must be with a proper business-friendly mechanism agreed between the two governments. Otherwise, future South Korean KIC staff will have to suffer.”
Featured Image: Mr. Lee Joung-deok with a North Korean worker, courtesy of Lee.
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