Evidence of North Korea’s dependence on the South can be found at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just six miles north of the demilitarized zone. The jointly run plant has North Korean laborers working with the South Korean staff of South Korean corporations. It produces tens of millions of dollars for North Korea every year and, in turn, grants the South cheap labor.
Kaesong is one of the few remaining products of Seoul’s ill-fated “Sunshine Policy,” meant to kill Pyongyang’s bluster with kindness, often in the form of aid. South Korea shut down most of those programs in 2010, after the South Korean naval ship Cheonan was mysteriously sunk, Seoul believes, by a North Korean submarine. But it kept Kaesong open because it’s a good deal.
This past week, North Korean border guards announced they were closing the facility to South Koreans, sending many back across the border. The North has closed the facility to the South before, and probably will reopen it soon. But even if the North cuts off Kaesong, whom will it really be hurting? South Korean firms can find other sources for cheap labor. A North Korean city reliant on the plant, The Washington Post’s Chico Harlan wrote, would “all but collapse economically, potentially causing social unrest among citizens with direct knowledge about capitalism and South Korea’s relative wealth.”
As the North remains ever-reliant on a distrustful South and an increasingly wary China, South Korea has expanded its exports beyond technology into popular culture, two realms long dominated by the West and Japan.
Korean music, movies and television have proved so irresistible that they’re pushing across Asia into Japan, which has been a gold mine. As North Korea kidnaps Japan’s citizens and fires missiles over its territory, South Korea is sending its pop singers and soap stars into the heart of its former colonial master while funneling bushels of Japanese yen back home. PSY, of “Gangnam Style” fame, has even made it big in the West. During a November visit to Europe, he attracted up to 20,000 Parisians at an impromptu concert. The next month, he performed for and met President Obama.
Of course, South Korea’s economic and cultural victory could turn to ashes in the extremely unlikely but still terrifying possibility of conflict. A war would hurt North Korea most of all, probably causing its military — and thus the Kim regime — to collapse, but also would be horrifically costly for South Korea. Seoul is well within range of North Korean artillery, not to mention vulnerable to a nuclear attack.
But South Korea has been living with this threat for years. That doesn’t mean it should lessen the vigilance that has kept it ready through two generations of armistice. But it does suggest that it has figured out how to live with the North: a draft, an enormous standing army and the help of the United States’ troops and nuclear deterrent.
“The only thing to remind anyone of the impending threat is the occasional army helicopter buzzing overhead or reservists in their field dress, hopping on the subway,” Pearson said of life in Seoul.
Security, even in the face of extraordinary danger, is just a part of success — something that allows South Koreans to devote their energy to conquering the world with high-tech exports and addictive pop culture, peacefully attaining the power and wealth that Kim and his belligerent forefathers could only dream of.
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