Seoul: We pull out Pyongyang: You're kicked out

Metal objects believed to be debris from a North Korean long-range rocket that was launched on Sunday were on display at a naval base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, yesterday. South Korea has suspended operations at the Kaesong industrial park in retali
Metal objects believed to be debris from a North Korean long-range rocket that was launched on Sunday were on display at a naval base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, yesterday. South Korea has suspended operations at the Kaesong industrial park in retaliation for the rocket launch.PHOTO: REUTERS

Shutdown of Kaesong industrial park leaves South Korean companies in limbo

PAJU (South Korea) • The Kaesong industrial park that South Korea abruptly abandoned yesterday gave North Koreans a rare taste of life in the more affluent South.

Halting activity at the park, where 124 South Korean companies employed about 55,000 North Koreans, cuts the last significant vestige of North-South cooperation - a rare opportunity for Koreans divided by the 1950-53 war to interact on a daily basis.

North Korea said it was kicking out all South Koreans from the jointly run industrial zone yesterday and dozens of South Korean trucks were already returning across the border laden with goods and equipment after Seoul said it was pulling out.

South Korea has suspended operations in retaliation for Sunday's rocket launch by the North, which came after last month's nuclear weapons test.

North Korean workers were given a taste of life in the South at the complex, about 54km north- west of Seoul, including snacks such as Choco Pies and toiletries that were resold as luxury items in the North. The park is about 10km inside North Korea.

MOVING IN PAIRS

They never act individually. They always work and move in a group of two, even manager-level people do so. They never go to the bathroom by themselves - always in groups.

MR KOO JA ICK, a South Korean who works at an apparel company in Kaesong, on the North Korean workers who are handpicked to work at the industrial park.

They also rubbed shoulders with their managers from South Korea. Supporters of the project said that kind of contact was important in promoting inter-Korean understanding, despite concerns that Pyongyang might have used proceeds from Kaesong to help fund its nuclear and missile programmes.

Except for Kaesong, both countries forbid their citizens from communicating with each other across the world's most fortified frontier.

"We piled up instant noodles, bread and drinks in our warehouse so North Korean workers could come here and eat freely," said Lee Jong Ku, who runs a firm that installs electrical equipment for apparel factories in Kaesong. "We don't mind them eating our food, because we only care about them working hard."

For the North, the revenue opportunity from Kaesong - US$110 million (S$153 million) in wages and fees last year - was deemed worth the risk of exposing its workers to influences from the prosperous South. In recent years, North Koreans have had increasing access to contraband media, exposing them to life in the South and China.

Still, Pyongyang took precautions to ensure the workers it hand- picked for the complex had minimal contact with their South Korean managers that could be potentially subversive.

"These North Korean workers are strongly armed ideologically," said Mr Koo Ja Ick, who was waiting on the South side of the border on his way to Kaesong, where he has worked at an apparel company for the past four years. "They never act individually. They always work and move in a group of two, even manager-level people do so. They never go to the bathroom by themselves - always in groups," he said.

A South Korean government official involved in North Korea policy said it was difficult to see how operations could be resumed any time soon at Kaesong, which opened in 2005.

The average wage for North Korean workers at Kaesong was roughly US$160 a month, paid to a state management company. The workers received about 20 per cent of that in coupons and North Korean currency, said Cho Bong Hyun, who heads research on North Korea's economy at IBK Bank in Seoul.

South Korean business owners were angry with the government's sudden decision to suspend operations. "I'm speechless at what has happened," said Mr Jang Ik-Ho, a manager with an engineering company in the complex.

"The companies have all done our best to make things work, and now this happens. What did we do to deserve this?" he added, as he prepared to cross into the North.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2016, with the headline 'Seoul: We pull out Pyongyang: You're kicked out'. Print Edition | Subscribe