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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

North-South Trade Update 1: Wages and Wage Payments at Kaesong

by | November 27th, 2012 | 07:00 am
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October is parliamentary inspection season in South Korea, which means overtime for ministry officials as they scramble to provide answers to questions from National Assembly committees and members. An item in Yonhap (in Korean) reported on questions about Kaesong posed by members of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee; the answers from the Ministry of Unification provide some interesting detail on wages and wage payments in the industrial zone.

According to the MOU, the average monthly wage at KIC has reached $128.3 as of the first half of 2012. This marks a steady increase from $68.1 in 2006, $71.0 in 2007, $74.1 in 2008, $80.3 in 2009, $93.7 in 2010, $109.3 in 2011. One source of the increase is a built-in escalator clause on the minimum wage payment, which started at $50 and has increased 5% a year over the last six years. But that only gets you to about $67 for this year.

The remainder of the observed increase is apparently the result of additional payments for overtime, which has been rising dramatically. Average weekly working hours were already 55.2 hours in 2006 but now stand at 61.6 in 2012 (up to July). If we knew that these additional hours were the result of the free choices of hard-working, upwardly mobile workers we would still probably find it a little excessive. But of course, the advantages of working in Kaesong are such that North Korean authorities have absolute power to hire and fire at will. There is no way of knowing whether workers would choose this regimen if they were organized or not.

But the story is much worse, of course, because we don’t ultimately know what share of these wage payments actually end up in the hands of the workers in the complex. Wages are paid in U.S. dollars to the North Korean authorities by the South Korean companies operating in the complex. 45% of the wage bill–15% for “social security” and 30% for “socio-cultural policy entitlements”–flows into the regime’s coffer, while the remaining 55% is supposedly given to the workers in either DPRK won or coupons.

But not so fast. A crucial question is the exchange rate at which workers are paid and the value of the “coupons” they receive. We hardly need to state the obvious: North Korean workers are not getting paid the won equivalent of their dollar salaries at anything resembling the shadow-market exchange rate that reflects actual scarcities. At least in the Yonhap report, the MOU makes no mention of what the real dollar equivalent of won payments are using a realistic exchange rate. But given the country’s high inflation and rapid depreciation of the exchange rate—see my colleague Marc Noland on this—the dollar value of what North Korean workers actually receive could be only a small fraction—even a very small fraction—of the stated dollar wage .

Why has Kaesong stayed open? The answer lies in a pretty straightforward political economy calculus on both sides. For the South, Kaesong is industrial policy for labor-intensive firms. For North Korea, it is a cash cow that even hardliners have been loath to push the way of the Mt. Kumgang project. Since 2004, total wage payments for North Korean workers in the KIC has totaled $245.7 million, rising from $380,000 in 2004 (the first year of operation) to $61.76 million in 2011 and $45.93 million in the first half of 2012. For Pyongyang, even hardliners can see that this is a no-brainer.