Bussing across the DMZ to Kaesong
Oddly, they carried big bags for a day at the office, and warm parkas for a spring day.
Soon, the bus arrived, and a female attendant hopped out, greeting the commuters in a jolly voice: “Passengers to Kaesong, please get on board!” Kaesong industrial complex, that is, in North Korea.
Welcome to the only daily public bus between the two Koreas. Hyundai Asan, provider of this service and developer of the southern-run industrial park, says the number of passengers was irregular at first, but after almost a year and a half, demand has reached about 30 passengers a day.
Oh Seul-yeol, a Hyundai Asan employee, said he takes the shuttle once a week ever since being transferred to one of the Kaesong plants a few months ago.
Mr. Oh’s family told him to be careful when they heard about his transfer to north of the demilitarized zone. But they don’t seem worried now. Next to his seat was a trunk and a cardboard box stuffed with personal belongings.
“[Commuting] is all the same,” Mr. Oh said shrugging. “You get on the bus for about two hours and then you’re at work.”
But it’s an unusual workplace ― a virtual microcosm of eventual Korean unification, with many differences stemming from individualism in the South compared with a collective mentality in the North.
Lee Jeong-taeg, a general manager at Hyundai Asan, said he was surprised to learn that North Korean workers liked competitive races, but only when held in groups.
“Communist society teaches workers that being the best or standing out of the crowd is unethical,” explained Mr. Lee.
At Kaesong factories, it’s common to see a “group leader” stand up and encourage his group to work faster and be more productive. At the end of the day, the whole plant applauds the winning group, which is awarded refreshments.
Female workers prefer soda, while male workers are treated with beer, all made in North Korea.
“North Korean beer is really good,” said Mr. Lee. “My favorite is the Daedong-gang (Daedong River) dark beer.”
Having travelled back and forth since August of 2000, he said he really enjoyed working with the North Korean workers.
“They are very hard-working, diligent and very innocent,” he said.
According to Mr. Lee, Kaesong is bliss for managers. Facing rising labor costs at home, many South Korean companies have been moving their factories to China. But in no time, he said, they would be shifting their attention to Kaesong.
Mr. Lee cited the example of Shinwon Ebenezer Company, a successful clothing producer in Kaesong. Shinwon pays $200 per month to workers at its facilities in Dalian, a northeastern port city in China, but only $60 per month per worker in Kaesong.
Import tax of 14 percent is added to products cut and sewn in Dalian, but those made in Kaesong are imported tax-free. Then there is the cost of translators in China and international shipping.
For companies worried about the inter-Korean political situation, the South Korean government has promised compensation for work stoppages stemming from conflicts between Seoul and Pyongyang.
Considering all the benefits to South Korean firms, “you can see that we are not just giving North Korea free goods as some critics charge,” said Mr. Lee.
Currently, there are 15 South Korean factories operating in Kaesong, but the park’s goal is to have 150 by the end of the year. By 2012, the industrial park is to spread over 67 square kilometers, or 26 square miles, and to employ 730,000 North Koreans.
“We expect North Korean workers from Pyongyang and elsewhere to relocate to Kaesong for jobs,” Mr. Lee said.
Although Kaesong provides a great economic opportunity for South Korean firms, the commuters admitted that it took a lot of patience and understanding to avoid clashes with the northerners.
When one South Korean asked a North Korean worker if he had taken his pen, the northerner threw a fit, saying the question was very offensive and rude, while a group of his comrades rushed to back him up.
The South Korean said he had suspected one of the North Koreans when his belongings started disappearing so often. But after the confrontation, he stayed quiet even if he lost things again.
“It was mostly small stuff like pens, paper and notepads,” he said shrugging.
Yang Eun, the bus attendant, has to spend several hours with North Korean female office workers before the return trip to Seoul, said she now feels quite comfortable in Kaesong.
“I think we were both very nervous when we first sat in the same room,” she said about the North Koreans. “I talked to them first and thankfully they responded.”
Now, they even buy each other afternoon snacks. Ms. Yang sometimes packs chocolate marshmallow moonpies to share with the workers. When it is North Korean’s turn to supply snacks, however, they buy South Korean-made snacks sold by a nearby vendor supplied for the managers there. According to Ms. Yang, North Korean men are fond of moonpies, while women opt for ice cream.
Another commuter said he was disappointed by the sightseeing when he finally got a chance to go beyond the industrial complex. Kaesong was the capital of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and he was excited to check out the relics he had known only from history books.
“You can’t say it was the best place for sightseeing,” he said. “A lot of the relics were not protected well. Roads were unpaved, and there is much to do to turn it into a real attraction.”
For now, just getting across the border is a lot of work.
“I try to stay at my temporary quarters in Kaesong for up to a week every time I travel there,” said Mr. Oh, the Hyundai employee. “It is too tiring to go back and forth every day.”
Well, that explains why all the passengers had heavy bags.
Although the bus-ride is only two hours, the trip is encumbered with customs procedures.
Visitors must first apply for an “invitation from North Korea,” which is basically a visa issued by the North Korean government to South Korean travelers.
Visitors must also take a 4-hour class at the Unification Ministry to learn the dos and don’ts for visitors to the North.
The content of the class was agreed upon by the two governments. Instead of calling the North “North Korea” or the “Northern state” as many South Koreans do, visitors must refer to it as “northern side.” Instead of “South Chosun” as North Koreans say, they must call South Korea the “southern side.”
When addressing one another, South Koreans normally say “Ssi,” which means “mister” and North Koreans say “Dongmu” or “dongji,” which means “comrade.” But in Kaesong, people from the two sides must call each other “seonsaeng,” which means “teacher” but is another term for “mister.”
After almost two hours on the highway, past Ilsan and Munsan, the bus arrived at the end of Jayu-ro (Freedom Highway), rolling to a stop in front of Unification Bridge, where South Korean soldiers stopped all vehicles. A few more passengers who had driven this far on their own hopped on the bus.
Ms. Yang checked the passenger list, and hurried them aboard in order to cross the Military Demarcation Line at exactly 10 a.m.
To prepare for customs, Ms. Yang collected contraband from passengers.
“Cell phones, digital cameras with resolution above 2.4 mega pixels and obscene magazines are prohibited,” she said. “The socialist nation thinks [men’s magazines] will make its people fall into disorder,” she explained to a couple of confused looking passengers who said it was their first time to Kaesong.
This bus had no porn, but Ms. Yang did collect twenty-odd cell phones, which she said would be returned on the way back to Seoul.
By 9:20 a.m., all passengers were in line at the Dorasan customs, inspection and quarantine station. Bags were scanned by x-ray machines, and a South Korean official stamped “departure” in their visa books.
Ms. Yang was busy ushering people around when she realized that one passenger was missing. Apparently he was hiding in the toilet, nervous about crossing into the communist state for the first time.
by Lee Min-a