- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006

KAESONG, North Korea — Every day, convoys of about 300 South Korean cars and trucks trundle north along a barbed-wire-lined, four-lane highway to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the jewel in the crown of North-South Korean cooperation.

Opened in December 2004 to meld South Korean management skills and technology with low-cost North Korean labor, the complex has 25 South Korean companies employing 6,000 North Koreans, producing pots, footwear and textiles, primarily for the Southern market.

Authorities expect those numbers to rise rapidly, projecting that several hundred Southern companies will employ 700,000 North Koreans by 2012, making the zone a blueprint for future North-South economic relations.

Officials from Hyundai Asan, the southern conglomerate that has pioneered economic relations with the North, and the state-run Korean Land Corp. were ebullient yesterday as they welcomed 120 foreign reporters on a tour of the $220 million complex, the first such press tour since it opened.

“The North Korean workers are very diligent, with high manual skills,” said Kim Dong-keun, the president of the complex’s Industrial District Management Committee. “Their productivity level is on average 80 percent that of South Korean counterparts.”

The Northern workers, meanwhile, are paid a monthly wage of $57.50, between one-tenth and one-twentieth of what employers pay in the South, said Moon Chang-sup, president of Stafild, a sports shoe manufacturer that is planning to relocate its main operations from South to North. The only currency used in the complex is U.S. dollars.

Standing amid a vast, dusty plain of excavated ground, the complex includes a bank, a convenience store and accommodations for the 500 South Koreans who work here. The North Koreans are bused in daily.

Electricity is supplied by the South, and telephone lines were laid in December, but there is no Internet access or cell-phone use.

Beyond the five-mile-long perimeter fence are brown hills, totally stripped of vegetation. Soldiers in Soviet-style brown serge patrol nearby.

On one side, the complex borders a drab North Korean village. The gray concrete of the shabby houses, set amid plots of brown dust, is cracked and crumbling. Many of their windows, lacking glass, are filled instead with sheet plastic.

Complex officials say they have helped the villagers with heating briquettes and rice, but there is no other contact. The contrast with the complex, with its modern buildings, street lighting and grass lawn, is striking.

Factories inside the zone are spacious, well-lighted and equipped with modern industrial safety features, including a gleaming red fire engine.

Not surprisingly, in the year that the complex has been open, no labor disputes have erupted.

“This is the first such attempt to work with South Koreans, so there is pride,” said Kim Hyo-jung, a young North Korean interpreter who delivered a snappy PowerPoint presentation, complete with a laser pointer.

But much remains behind the veil of secrecy that shields most things North Korean. Salaries are paid not to the workers, but to a North Korean government agency. “We have no idea what happens next,” said one Southern factory foreman.

Workers were reluctant to speak.

“I was picked for this job by the government, but I cannot tell you my salary. It is best to ask the company,” said one textile worker.

Social contact between the Southern managers and Northern workers is nonexistent.

“It is absolutely impossible to socialize. It is prohibited by the authorities,” said Yoo Nam-yeol, a South Korean production manager at Taesang Hata, a firm producing cosmetics containers. Off-duty South Koreans spend their time reading, playing pingpong or watching satellite television.

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