[Viewpoint] Kaesong goes rolling along

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[Viewpoint] Kaesong goes rolling along

One of the pleasures of residing in Ilsan, Gyeonggi, a satellite city northwest of Seoul, aside from access to spacious Lake Park, is an exclusive glimpse of our reclusive neighbor. A 20-minute drive on the Freedom Expressway takes you to an area open to civilians in the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone. It is not my first climb up to the observation tower on Mount Odu overlooking the Han River as it meets the Imjin River across the border. On a sunny day, a telescope will show you the doorsteps of Gaepoong, the closest North Korean town to the border.

The sight of carelessly built houses, bare roads, barren fields and expressionless residents contrasts vividly with the capitalist consumer cafes, bars and motels peppered across Tongil Park in the South near the observation tower. The ice on the two rivers that divide the Koreas will surely melt when the season changes. But we cannot know when spring will shine upon the two.

Last week I had a chance to meet with Minister of Unification Yu Woo-ik. He confessed frustration with the long-standing stalemate between the two Koreas.

“I’ve taken a life’s worth of scorn from North Koreans,” he said.

The minister dubbed “Mr. Flexible” tried his best to break the ice between the two Koreas since taking office six months ago. But his endeavors were met with a cold response and epithets like “idiot” and “puppet” from the North Koreans, who vow not to associate with the “gang of Lee Myung-bak.”

Yu’s sense of helplessness is understandable. But the remaining year is too valuable to be spent on sighs and complaints. Authorities must summon farsightedness and patience to one by one untangle the intricate knots in inter-Korean relations.

Eight lawmakers returned from a visit to the Kaesong Industrial Complex. It was the first time a group from both the ruling and opposition parties visited the joint-venture manufacturing base under the incumbent government. The complex is home to 123 small South Korean companies that employ more than 50,000 North Koreans.

Almost all eligible workers in North Korea’s southernmost city of Kaesong, which has a population of 250,000, work in the zone. Yet the employers say they are short of hands. They need 25,000 more workers to meet their orders. “We businessmen must think of alternatives if a business does poorly for three months,” said Bae Hae-dong, chief of the association of South Korean factories in Kaesong.

But only one South Korean business has pulled out of Kaesong since the complex first turned out its products in 2004, which shows how well the joint venture is doing. Bae’s company, Taesung Industrial, produces packages for cosmetics, and its lines run around the clock with 830 North Korean workers working in shifts.

Most companies work overtime during the week and on weekends to meet demand. Workers are paid about $115to $120 per month, including overtime allowances. North Koreans are skilled and hard-working and there is no communication hassle as there is between China and Vietnam. Bae wants to expand production and hire more people but can’t due to the business ban instituted after North Korea attacked the Cheonan warship in March 2010.

Manufacturing went on uninterrupted after the Cheonan sinking and the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Neither Korea wanted to interfere with the only successful enclave of business in North Korea.

The Kaesong venture has come too far for political interference. If a worker at the complex is a father of three, we can estimate some 200,000 North Koreans rely on the complex. They appreciate a workplace that keeps their family fed, while South Korean companies regard the workers as not merely North Koreans, but as members of their corporate families.

Nam Kyung-pil of the ruling Saenuri Party, who was one of the recent visitors to the complex, said his peers agreed that the Kaesong venture should be dealt with strictly from a business perspective. They emphasized the need to exclude the area from the ban on inter-Korean cooperation. They presented the government with a set of proposals to stimulate business at Kaesong. The government announced measures to ease restrictions in Kaesong. Among them were licenses to enlarge storage, manufacturing and recreational facilities in the area.

But Seoul kept a ban on any major capital investments. The new measures are too incomplete. If the government wants to bolster business there, South Korea must make Kaesong an exception to the ban on South Korean corporate activities in North Korea, which was imposed to get an apology from Pyongyang for its deadly military attacks.

The Kaesong venture is a win-win business model for the two Koreas. It is also the most effective way to affect change in the reclusive society. As the old Korean adage goes, a drizzle can eventually get you soaked.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myong-bok
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