Posted by: rbbadger | May 18, 2009

Gaeseong Industrial Complex

Not terribly far from us in the Seoul area is the city of Gaeseong, North Korea.  This city, very important in Korean history as it was the capital of Korea’s penultimate dynasty, the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392).  Goryeo (spelled Koryŏ in the old McCune-Reischauer method of romanisation) is from where the name Korea comes.  Like the Shilla before them, they united most of the peninsula under their rule. 

During the presidencies of Kim Dae Jung (金大中) and Roh Moo-hyun (盧武鉉), relations with North Korea warmed considerably.  A great deal of aid was given to the North and both presidents visited Kim Jong-il in Pyeongyang.  The so-called Sunshine Policy had three important principles.  Firstly, South Korea will not tolerate any act of armed agression from the North.  Secondly, South Korea will not seek to absorb North Korea.  Thirdly, South Korea actively seeks to cooperate with the North.  Some important joint ventures took place.  Among them were the tourist facilities in the Geumgang Mountains where tourists from South Korea could go hiking and enjoy the spectacular scenery.  Gaeseong also opened up as a tourist destination as well.  I am now kicking myself that I did not take advantage of the opportunity to go up there, as now both the Geumgang Mountains and Gaeseong are now off-limits, following North Korea’s shooting of a South Korean tourist.  Before last year, they were just about the only two places where an American citizen could easily visit North Korea.

The current president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak (李明搏), has decided to take a tougher line on North Korea.  He made North Korea’s receipt of aid contingent on their shutting down of their nuclear weapons programme.  He also stated that human rights should be taken into account as well.  North Korea has not reacted positively to the Lee presidency.  For a while, they were trying to cozy up to Obama, but they don’t see that he’s going to give them everything they want, so they are now beginning to complain about him. 

Also, South Korean businesses built some factories in Gaeseong.  While many things continue to be made in South Korea, some Korean businesses are doing some of their manufacturing in China.  The idea of being able to employ people who speak the same language was appealing and some light manufacturing now takes place there.  However, I do believe that under current US law and policy, I am not allowed to bring into the United States anything from there, unless I have the prior approval of the State Department.

Gaeseong has also played an important role in getting people employed in North Korea.  While their salary isn’t very much, maybe only about $90 a month (about $20-30 after taxes), they are among the highest paid workers in the country.  Now, North Korea has in effect annulled all of the contracts on rent, taxes, and salaries and informed the South Koreans to vacate the complex.  Also, there is the question of what will happen to a South Korean worker there.  Apparently, he said some not-so-positive things about the North Korean government and its “Great Leader” (위대한 령도자) Kim Jong-il (金正日).  He also encouraged a North Korean employee to try and defect to the South.  Needless to say, he was detained by North Korean authorities, as encouraging defection and speaking ill of the god-king is simply not allowed.  Who knows what will happen to him?

Also, there are a couple of American journists, one of them Korean-American and the other Chinese-American, who are set to undergo trial in North Korea soon.  If North Korean courts are anything like how Chinese courts used to be, then they haven’t got a chance of escaping some pretty harsh punishment.

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