Pyongyang puts politics above dollars
By Andrei Lankov
SEOUL - It appears the dreams of Washington conservatives are likely to be
carried through by the force they dislike most - North Korea.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Monday announced that from December 1
it would restrict movement across the border with South Korea, suspend an
historic railway and "selectively expel" South Koreans based at two joint
projects in the North, the Kaesong Industrial Estate and the Mount Kumgang
tourist resort. This followed South Korea's "policy of confrontation", KCNA
The Kaesong Industrial Park, long a flagship of North-South economic
interaction, is a thorn in the side of the more extreme
factions of the American right. The decision to place restrictions on it,
however, did not come in a way the conservatives hoped for: from a righteous
Seoul administration which finally saw the light and decided to cut down the
lifeline of the "evil" North Korean dictatorship. The controversial park
project is to be closed by North Korea, that is, by the people who benefit most
from its activities to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year.
In letters to business groups, quoted by the South's Unification Ministry,
Pyongyang said half the "unnecessary" South Korean staff at the estate must
leave. The move will severely disrupt operations at Kaesong, where more than
32,000 North Koreans earning about US$60 a month each work for 83 South
Korean-owned factories, along with about 1,500 South Korean managers and
Trouble has been brewing since mid-October, when North Korea said the South
Korean government should stop the activities of South Korean non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) which were sending air balloons with leaflets and hard
currency to North Korea.
They made it clear that they would retaliate by closing down Kaesong. Pyongyang
says the activities of the NGOs are in a breach of a 2002 agreement which
explicitly prohibits both Korean governments from waging propaganda battles
against one another. When this agreement was signed, the militaries of both
sides switched off their loudspeakers at the demilitarized zone between the
countries. For decades the sides had bombarded each other with subversive
messages (admittedly, without any noticeable effects). The sending of leaflets
by balloons, a standard practice before 2002, was stopped as well.
However, NGOs took over where the government stopped. Three major civic groups
based in the South conduct leaflet operations. Their messages differ, but they
all use the same tactics: using favorable winds, a balloon with a
leaflet-packed container is released, with calculations made to ensure it
reaches a major population center. Then, when the balloon is supposed to be
over its target area, the leaflets are automatically released. The technology
was not provided by the South Korean military, so the NGOs had to develop it
The groups that send leaflets to the North include the North Korean Christian
Association (chairman Yi Myong-bok), Fighter for Free North Korea (chairman Pak
Sang-hak) and the Union of the Abductees' Families (chairman Choe Song-yong).
The groups often cooperate, but their approach and messages are different.
Yi Myong-bok, a defector and a Christian activist, puts special emphasis on the
spread of Christianity. Pak Sang-hak, also a defector, believes that democracy
should come first, so his group's leaflets reflect this belief.
Finally, Choe Song-yong and his supporters represent families of nearly 500
South Korean citizens, largely fishermen, who have been abducted by the North
Koreans since 1953. Among other things, they send leaflets with the lists of
the abductees - on the assumption that some of them will learn that they are
not forgotten and then find some way to contact their relatives in the South.
No doubt, the leaflets annoy the North Korean rulers a lot, but until recently
they tacitly tolerated them. Now things have changed and Pyongyang has acted on
its word that it would take action if the balloons did not stop.
The NGOs are independent from the Seoul government and in some cases their
relations with the authorities are tense. They are very hostile to the North
Korean regime and not particularly fond of the Kaesong project, so they refused
to bow to any pressure and continued in a most visible way.
The loss or restriction of Kaesong would be a big blow. It began operations in
late 2004 and was designed to make use of cheap North Korean labor. Even though
Pyongyang pockets most of the money paid to the North Korean workers, they are
still relatively well off in a country in which the average official monthly
salary is US$2 a month.
There are no figures indicating the extent to which the South Korean side
profits from the undertaking in purely economic terms. The companies in Kaesong
are heavily subsidized by Seoul through direct and indirect channels, and the
system of these subsidies is not particularly transparent, perhaps deliberately
so since the government does not want to tell taxpayers how much money is being
spent on aiding the North. One can only assume it is an unprofitable operation
for the South Koreans.
Kaesong has been frequently criticized by hawks in Washington, who see it as
yet another way to indirectly subsidize the North Korean regime. Indeed, the
regime is no doubt making good money out of Kaesong. So why is it prepared to
close or restrict it so abruptly?
First, it is difficult to take the official explanation of the balloons at face
value. The leaflets they drop are disturbing and annoying, but they hardly
constitute a direct threat. After all, Pyongyang was not influenced by the much
larger efforts of South Korean propagandists before 2002.
From frequent talks with North Korean defectors, the author has the impression
the leaflets have not had much impact on North Koreans. Even if they come
across a leaflet and read it (they are supposed to surrender leaflets without
reading them), they do not necessarily believe the statements. How can they
know that the statements are not wild exaggerations or fabrications, not that
much different from the lies they read in their own official newspapers every
So, if leaflets are a pretext, the real reason could be the Kaesong project
itself, in that it provides opportunities for unauthorized exchanges, given the
large numbers of North and South Koreans working together for the first time in
60 years since war divided the peninsula.
The North Koreans not only learn modern technical skills, they also have ample
scope to look at their southern compatriots and see that they do not behave
like South Koreans are supposed to, according to North Korean propaganda.
Cautious political discussions can't be ruled out, which in the long run could
have a great impact on the internal situation of North Korea.
This must have been a crucial consideration for Pyongyang, as the survival of
the North greatly depends on maintaining the myths about the South, such as it
being a starving US colony, a "living hell, land of destitution and despair".
In recent years, the spread of smuggled South Korean videos has made this
propaganda line unsustainable. Now, North Koreans are told that the South,
while probably affluent, has lost its true national identity, so its
inhabitants are full of admiration towards the spiritual purity of their
Northern brethren. The southerners, the propaganda claims, also badly want to
purify themselves under the wise guidance of the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il
(allegedly a cult figure in both the South and the North).
The leaders in Pyongyang do not want this myth exposed, and for North Koreans
to see how badly the North fares in comparison to the prosperous and free South
- something about which the leaders themselves have no doubts.
In this context, Kaesong was a gamble from the outset, and for a while
Pyongyang seemingly decided that since the monetary rewards were good, the
political risks could be accepted and managed.
Perhaps they also wanted to check whether they could contain the spread of
dangerous information; the decision was made in 2002-2004, when North Korean
politics were going through a period of very limited but still unprecedented
However, the relaxation soon ended. Since late 2004, North Korean leaders have
worked hard to turn back the clock to the situation that existed in the 1970s
and 1980s. They reintroduced rationing of food, limited market activities (and
now, if very recent rumors are to be believed, are contemplating a near
complete closure of markets from January). All recent measures have been about
greater control and tougher restrictions.
Unlike optimists overseas, they believe North Korea cannot afford to emulate
the success of China in transforming the economy as this would entail a
considerable relaxation of domestic police control. China survived such a
relaxation, but there is a great difference between North Korea and China. The
Chinese leaders do not have to deal with the existence of a "South", "another
Korea", a large country in which people speak the same language but enjoy
nearly unbelievable prosperity. The North Korean leaders believe their populace
will become uncontrollable if the common people learn how prosperous the South
Over the past few years this has made Kaesong something of an anachronism, the
only project in the country working towards greater openness and liberalism.
Now it seems this anachronism is not going to last, it has become too
dangerous; the era of openness is well and truly over. The measure is likely to
prolong the agony of North Korea, but it gives the North's leaders additional
time to enjoy their moderately luxurious lifestyle.
Hawks in Washington might hope that the decision will deprive the North Korean
regime of revenue, thus bringing its end closer. But they are wrong. The regime
can survive in isolation - actually, it can survive only in isolation. Starving
people do not rebel; they just die, especially when they have no idea that a
different way of life is possible.
Kaesong offered a glimmer of light, but now this is being snuffed out, to the
peril of the long-suffering people of North Korea.
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.