Korean business park ‘neutral zone’

The complex just north of the
border still employs hundreds of commuting South Koreans, despite escalating
tensions. Some worry for the workers’ safety. But neither side is willing to
pull the plug.

These are not the best of times to
be stuck on the wrong side of the DMZ.

Yet hundreds of South Koreans still
commute north of the border to an industrial park that once symbolized
brotherly love between an estranged people and is now a pawn in a dangerous
quarrel over the March 26 sinking of a South Korean patrol ship.

“This is like children struggling
to read the mind of their parents who are about to divorce,” said Lee
Im-dong, director of the corporate council for the Kaesong industrial park, who on a recent
afternoon was fielding phone calls from nervous factory owners and employees.

After South Korean President Lee
Myung-bak pointed to overwhelming evidence that a North Korean torpedo had sunk
the navy ship, he suspended almost all trade with North
Korea and banned its ships from South Korean shipping
lanes, prompting the government in Pyongyang
to ban South Koreans from its territory.


But against all odds, the Kaesong industrial park
has been limping along through the crisis — with neither side wanting to pull
the plug.

“To close Kaesong
would mean completely cutting off ties between the Koreas,
and that would be the starting point for military tension to build up,”
said Lim Eul-chul, a scholar at South Korea’s
Kyungnam University
who has written a book on Kaesong.

The industrial park opened in 2004,
during a giddy period in which Koreans were celebrating the restoration of
railroad lines and roads across the DMZ, the expansion of tourism and cultural
exchanges. When the first products, steel saucepans, rolled off the assembly
lines at Kaesong, South Koreans bought up all
1,000 of them in two days at a Seoul
department store in a burst of enthusiasm about the rapprochement.

The numbers change daily, but as of
early this month, 818 South Koreans were still working alongside roughly 43,000
North Koreans. Despite the supposed ban on North Korean products, South Korea recently
accepted delivery of 20 tons of peeled garlic as well as $17,000 worth of
clothing and $250,000 of electrical sockets.

Lim, who is in touch with many
workers and managers, says that on a human level, relations between the Koreans
at Kaesong are
not as hostile as one might imagine. He paraphrased North Korean bureaucrats
whispering to South Koreans, “We hate Lee Myung-bak’s government but not
you as people.”

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