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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

See No Evil: South Korean Labor Practices in North Korea

by | May 12th, 2014 | 06:48 am

The East-West Center in Honolulu has put out through their AsiaPacific Issues series another version of the work that I have been doing on South Korean labor practices in North Korea. This version is the smallest, most easily digestible, bite-size bit before I start aiming for newspaper op-ed pages!

Comments (2)

Nobody should discount any of that — just not sure how far or deep it really penetrates. Same goes for the great tours you run to NKorea. How much do we see, and how much do they see of us? Thanks for your comments.

Don May 15, 2014 | 9:10 pm


Apologies for not having read the paper yet.

My initial knee-jerk reaction is influenced by so many papers on the DPRK that continue to point out the obvious, namely that bad leaders do bad things to their people in order to stay in power. Certainly some of these articles, particularly those by Marcus and Steph, do an excellent job of documenting with facts and figures the good, the bad and the ugly.

What I think would be helpful, in the absence of an effective policy dealing with the DPRK, is for some of the activities to be looked at in a positive light, for ways that the international community might be able to learn from previous engagement with the DPRK make some progress in dealing with the DPRK in ways that have incremental “good.”

For example, has no one noted that the Kaesong Complex was kept open by the DPRK long after Kumgang was shut down (by the ROK, not the DPRK)? Why was this? Just the money? What about the security aspects?

Doesn’t anyone think it significant that there was a South Korean related enclave literally on the Northern Limit Line, employing 50,000 or so North Korean workers from the area, with an economic impact on at least 150,000-250,000 additional residents of the Kaesong area?

What do people think the impact of the shutdown of Kaesong did to these several hundred thousand North Koreans living within walking distance of the DMZ? Do people think these workers and their families were happy with their government for shutting down their livelihood? Was the KPA not concerned about having that many unhappy campers right on the DMZ, right on a primary invasion route from South to North?

If sending balloons with socks and other messages to the DPRK has value, wasn’t this situation just as valuable? One can be sure that every one of the 50,000 North Koreans workers received one of these “balloons.”

Yes, the workers were kept at some distance from the South Korean managers, but does that mean there was no impact whatsoever from this exposure? I have been to Kaesong (from both North and South) and when in the Kaesong Complex I was within a few feet of workers there. I didn’t talk to any of them, (mainly because I don’t speak Korean) but they could certainly see me and my interactions, at the time a middle-aged white guy, definitely not Korean. I’m sure there were many other visitors in addition to the South Koreans. Just seeing these “foreigners” and their lifestyles, eating at nicer cafeterias, shopping at the Family Mart, driving cars, etc., is not an insignificant influence, particularly under the rigid controls in the DPRK.

The working conditions in the new buildings and grounds, built to South Korean (International) standards with proper streets, curbs, sidewalks, landscaping, signage, stop lights, street lights, heating, air conditioning, etc., was truly a world away from what any of these workers or even cadre were used to and had to have an influence on them. Are people aware that Hyundai Asan provided shuttle bus (Hyundai buses) service for many of the workers, and also provided bicycles for many others? How many North Korean workers got that kind of treatment anywhere else in North Korea? Whether the DPRK cadre told the workers that they had made Hyundai Asan provide these services or not, doesn’t it still beg the issue of how Hyundai Asan had such nice buses and bikes, and could afford to provide them to these workers, and presumably to other workers in South Korea as well?

The same could be said for Kumgang, where there was actually a competition on the part of cadre’s spouses to work in the Kumgang laundry. Why? Because of free showers, warm working conditions, and for a time the ability to do their own laundry (and even do laundry for others as a mini-business, before Hyundai had to stop it) there as well. Can one say that there was no influence on the North Koreans working in Kumgang, or on their immediate families who knew about life in Kumgang? What about the KPA soldiers who guarded the crossing point and saw the busloads of South Koreans coming and going every day? What did they think when they went through their luggage?

How about the 2 million South Koreans who visited Kumgang over its ten year life? Did North Koreans working there fail to notice their better clothes, their free manners, the fact that they could take a vacation to a “resort,” the fact that many of them were young workers, boys and girls together, the fact that they could even drive personal cars to Kumgang in the later years, the amount and quality of shopping offered to the visitors (Hyundai had to open a “Duty Free Shop” in Kumgang due to the lack of North Korean items available for sale), the Family Mart, the clinic, the Woori Bank, the huge buses, the cameras, etc., etc.

Yes, the DPRK regime benefited from the visitors payments, but to discount any positive benefits to “winning the hearts and minds” of the North Koreans, as some North Korea watchers would have us believe, is intellectually dishonest, particularly when our current policy is a failure and no other viable alternative policy has been put forward other than more of the same.

Walter L. Keats May 12, 2014 | 3:23 pm


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