Two Koreas Learn to Work as One

North Koreans employed by Seoul-based Shinwon Textile Co. work on clothing at the vast Kaesong Industrial Complex, just north of the fortified border between the two Koreas.
North Koreans employed by Seoul-based Shinwon Textile Co. work on clothing at the vast Kaesong Industrial Complex, just north of the fortified border between the two Koreas. (Photos By Anthony Faiola -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

KAESONG, North Korea, Feb. 27 -- Inside a modern new industrial park two-thirds the size of Manhattan, hundreds of North Korean textile workers kept heads down and eyes focused Monday as South Korean managers patrolled the assembly lines.

But Kim Eue Hye, an effusive young woman wearing generous makeup, proudly looked up at a visitor to pronounce her verdict on an experiment that is bringing back together two societies separated for half a century.

"I have learned that it is possible to work with the South Koreans," said Kim, briefly putting down the blue pinstriped blouse she was finishing for dispatch to a department store in Seoul, the South's capital. "It has brought Korea closer to reunification. Together, nothing can stop us."

That, at least, is the official hope of the two Koreas, which view the vast Kaesong Industrial Complex just north of their shared border as the seeds of the peninsula's economic future: South Korean capital, technology and management matched with the North's low-cost labor.

Moving the project ahead has brought extreme challenges from the start. After the first busloads of North Korean workers arrived at the gates 16 months ago, weeks passed before people from the two societies could even understand each other's dialect, said Lim Dong Ryul, a section manager for Taesun Hata Corp., a cosmetics company that came north to set up in Kaesong last year.

He had to explain virtually every aspect of modern life to his fresh-faced communist charges -- down to how to use the factory's Western-style toilets.

Today, Taesun Hata is exporting compact casings for Clinique and eye shadow holders for Bobbi Brown from its multimillion-dollar plant, located just five miles north of the barbed wire and minefields of the world's most heavily fortified border.

"By standing with the North Koreans side by side and not giving up, we were able to make things work," Lim said. "Just look at what we've built."

Southern companies making shoes, textiles, auto parts and kitchen implements employ more than 6,000 North Koreans here. The workers put in long hours at often grueling tasks, but life here nonetheless seems a cut above the poverty that is common in most of North Korea.

This year, officials in Seoul project that an additional 15,000 North Koreans will start work as more than 20 South Korean companies move in. By 2012, plans call for as many as 700,000 employees -- 4.5 percent of North Korea's entire workforce.

The 1950-53 Korean War left both North and South in ruins. They never signed a peace treaty. Now, with detente softening the tensions, the Kaesong industrial zone is the largest effort at economic cooperation to date.

It is also key to South Korea's strategy for lessening what is bound to be a massive economic jolt if it reunites with the North. With North Korea's per-capita income at roughly $1,800 a year, 10 times less than the South's, South Korea faces a far greater wealth imbalance than West Germany did when it took in the communist East. So Seoul is hanging much of its hopes on gradually bridging the gap by offering its neighbor something it needs more than anything else -- jobs.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company