Page 2 of 2 A breach in North Korea's iron
curtain By Andrei
However, there are other remarks.
For many visitors, this is the first-ever
opportunity to meet North Koreans, and they do not
fail to notice that those people do look, well,
like people: "At first I felt tense when talking
to our guide, but then saw him smiling. Such a
warm smile!" One can wonder whether warmness is
the most typical quality of a secret police
officer in one of the world's cruelest
dictatorships, but at any rate the visitors came
to perceive North Korea not as an abstract concept
or geographic space, but as a country inhabited by
real people, made of flesh and blood.
impact on the other side is equally important. The
extraordinary security measures undertaken by the
North Korean authorities ensure that only a very
limited number of northerners are allowed to
approach the visitors. Nonetheless, the tours are a
single day, a small city is invaded by an
impressive motorcade: 10 large imposing buses,
half a dozen jeeps and other vehicles -
incidentally, produced in South Korea. The
preparations are thorough and, one might suspect,
seriously disrupt the city's routine. The North
Koreans can see, albeit from the distance, the
visitors - their dress, their height, their
behavior. The South Koreans can immediately see
how poor the North is. It seems that North
Koreans, being necessarily street-smart, also
instantly feel the South Korean prosperity.
Some North Koreans are allowed to interact
with the tourists. The guides, for example, are
even encouraged to talk, both gathering
intelligence and spreading North Korean
propaganda. From their questions it becomes clear
which issues they are required to investigate on a
particular day. However, even those toughs from
the Dear Leader's secret police remarkably change
their behavior when they get an opportunity to
Instead of fishing for
bits of useful intelligence, many of them
demonstrate a seemingly genuine interest in the
South Korean lifestyle. One of the guides could
not hide his surprise when he learned that a fancy
digital camera owned by one of the tourists cost
US$1,500. Obviously, he assumed that the girl must
be the daughter of a rich landlord or an evil
pro-US capitalist, and was visually surprised to
discover that she is a humble school teacher from
a small countryside town.
girls in small stalls and even a handful of
genuine guides (not the plaincloth intelligence
operatives) who can see the visitors will also
notice a lot. Even the willingness of the guests
to spend a dollar on a cup of instant coffee or a
few cookies is an important sign to them - after
all, the average monthly salary in Kaesong is
about $4. Those South Korean guests definitely do
not look like impoverished victims of evil US
imperialism. For a while it will be possible to
explain away their extravagant behavior by
insisting that those people come from the
exploitive elite. But the longer the tours
continue, the more difficult the task will become.
The author remembers growing up in the
Soviet Union of the 1970s. By then we knew that
foreign tourists were rich and we also suspected
that Western countries were living very well. An
occasional Western movie, a chance encounter with
well-dressed foreign tourists, a foreign
short-wave broadcast, made this obvious. However,
in the case of the Soviet Union, the growing
realization of our own economic disadvantage did
not immediately translate into political action.
After all, Finland or France were foreign
countries, with different histories and cultures,
and so government indoctrinators could plausibly
argue that the "uniquely tortured" history of
20th-century Russia was largely responsible for
our relative poverty. Not all believed these
statements, but some, including the present author
in his teenage years, certainly did.
Korea, the situation is different: both South and
North officially consider themselves to be two
parts of the same nation. The regime's claims to
legitimacy have always been based on its supposed
ability to deliver better material life for its
subjects, and the alleged North Korean prosperity
was always contrasted in Pyongyang propaganda with
the supposed South Korean destitution.
Unfortunately for the North Korean
government, the opposite is actually true:
depending on which calculations one believes, the
per capita income in the South is between 17 and
40 times higher (perhaps the world's greatest
difference between two countries sharing a land
border). If common North Koreans come to realize
that another half of their country is fabulously
rich, this discovery might have seriously
subversive effects, and the government understands
this very well. This is the reason why the North
Korean regime for decades has maintained a policy
of information self-isolation, which far exceeds
examples from other communist states, including
Joseph Stalin's Russia.
So why did the
North decide to open Kaesong in the first place?
It seems that the major reason is the easy
currency income the project brings to Pyongyang.
Every visitor pays 180,000 won ($190) - a hefty
sum for a one-day bus trip. Out of this amount,
100,000 won goes to the North Korean authorities.
All investment into necessary infrastructure is
done by Hyundai Asan, so for the North this is
easy money. Since 17,000 visitors joined the tours
during the first two months of its operations,
annual earnings could be in excess of $10 million.
At the same time, they might believe that
the Kaesong area has become ideologically
contaminated anyway. The Kaesong industrial park
is located just a few kilometers from the city. In
this facility, some 15,000 North Korean workers
are employed in factories owned and run by South
Korean capital, largely small businesses which are
in desperate need of "cheap labor".
workers interact with South Koreans regularly, and
they also see life inside the industrial park,
which presents a remarkable contrast with their
native towns or villages: well-paved roads, trees
planted everywhere, modern buildings and
round-the-clock supply of water and electricity.
Even traffic lights, famously absent from North
Korea, are present in this de-facto South Korean
Therefore, the Pyongyang rulers
obviously decided that tours would not make much
difference in an area where so many people had
already got hints of South Korean affluence.
Instead, they greatly increased
surveillance and control. In North Korea, all
citizens are required to apply for a "travel
permit" when they decide to go outside their
native city or county. A few months ago there were
reports that the authorities had introduced new
rules in regard to trips to Kaesong: permission
for such trips was made very difficult to obtain.
Nonetheless, the changes are important.
Contrary to what many people think, North Koreans
living in the area along the demilitarized zone
(DMZ) are worst informed about life in the outside
world, and especially in South Korea. The DMZ is
safely sealed so no exchanges of any kind have
been possible since the 1950s.
knowledge about overseas affluence began to
penetrate North Korea in the mid-1990s, but it
spreads largely from the northern regions where
the badly guarded border with China, crossed by
numerous smugglers and refugees, has became the
major conduit for such unauthorized information.
Therefore, paradoxically, the further a particular
area is from the border with the South, the more
informed its inhabitants are about South Korean
Now things are likely to change.
Despite all police efforts, the rumors will start
spreading, and very soon the inhabitants of the
southern counties will know that just kilometers
away there is another life, colorful, strange and
unbelievably rich. As long as the system works,
they will keep their mouths shut, but if there are
cracks and signs of instability in Pyongyang,
those people might react. And this might make a
difference. Riots somewhere in the far north, in
Hamhung or Ch'ongjin, can be easily localized and
suppressed: the rebels will have nowhere to run,
the news can be safely blocked. Similar
"disturbances" in a major urban center sitting
right on the border will become a different
Many opponents of the North Korean
regime criticize the current South Korean approach
as "spineless". They present the Sunshine policy
of engagement as a chain of concessions which only
feed the regime.
The Kaesong tours have
already attracted such predictable criticism.
However, the critics seem to be wrong. The
Sunshine policy might be based on wrong
assumptions and is sometimes executed quite badly,
but it still produces an important and lasting
The only way to promote change,
evolutionary or revolutionary, is to bring North
Koreans into contact with the outside world. The
North Korean dictator and his elite might see
partial exchanges as an easy way to earn money,
which is necessary for them to maintain their
caviar and cognac lifestyle. In the short term
they are probably right. But in the long term, the
exchanges will make breaches in the once monolith
wall of information blockade. Sooner or later,
those breaches will become decisive.
Andrei Lankov is an associate
professor in Kookmin University, Seoul, and
adjunct research fellow at the Research School of
Pacifica and Asian Studies, Australian National
University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and
China, with emphasis on Korea. He has published
books and articles on Korea and North Asia.