Thursday, May 03, 2007

Trip to the Kaesong Industrial Complex

A while ago I mentioned that I was able to visit the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea. I haven't had much time since then to sit down and write up my reflections, but I have to give a short presentation on it in a few days so I thought I would put up a rough draft of my presentation as well as some pictures. Any comments, of course, would be highly appreciated as well.

Labour in an experimental space: work and politics in the Kaesong Industrial Complex

This is the event: Urban Studies Symposium: Social Justice, Neoliberalism, Cities: Methodologies and Open Questions. Date: Saturday, May 5, 2007 Location: Room C475, UBC Robson Square, 800 Robson Street, Vancouver, Canada

Before starting this presentation, I’d just like to remind people that the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the topic of this presentation, is not the major focus of my own research, which deals more with neo-liberal restructuring in South Korea and the reactions from social movements of various sorts. That said, the KIC represents to me an interesting problem, conditioned as it is by social movement history and capitalist crisis in the South, as well as changing geopolitical and neoliberal trends and topographies in the Northeast Asian region. Thus, it seems important for me to have some understanding of where the project fits in to my own research and with some wider discussions about enclave capitalism and changing labour regimes on the peninsula.

Right off the bat this brings up a few questions that I’m not exactly prepared to answer in this presentation but where I think discussion could be generated. The first is the question of the urban as a preferred space for neoliberal rescaling in the West versus the importance of quasi or non-urban regulatory units, such as free trade and export processing zones, to post-socialist and/or post-developmentalist forms of growth in East Asia. The only thing that I will say about this debate here is that ‘zonal projects' and other forms of neo-liberal enclaves have to be seen relatively to the restructuring and support given to them at different scales which make these strategies highly contingent. This is important because I believe there is a tendency to focus on these projects as constituting something of their own set of autonomous transnational spaces, with capital free to move between them, when, actually, in my opinion there are important ways in which these projects feed back into different national dynamics that are crucial to consider. The second question I would like to raise is more methodological, and that is the difficulty in clarifying some issues surround workplace regimes in places such as those that I am about to describe where access to workers and the spaces of their daily lives is difficult for any researcher to gain access to, to say the least.

These two questions in mind, I think it is best to first approach the KIC from the perspective of how it fits into the trajectory of neoliberal reforms and popular struggles in South Korea. Here, the KIC must be seen alongside a number of restructurings and transnational projects that the South Korean state has been undertaking as of late: these include liberalizations targeting national laws and institutions, especially those based around labour, trade, and finance, as well more ‘spatially selective’ projects from the selling off of state enterprises, to the setting up of Free Economic Zones, and the acceleration of international recruitment and management of migrant labour. That said, though in the wake of these reforms, the South Korean state has been looking for a new ‘spatial fix’ for the country’s small and mid sized enterprises, which have been suffering from some of the wider effects of economic globalization, the project should not simply be reduced to the imperatives of any one single group.

More importantly, the Kaesong Industrial Complex comes out of the Korean government’s unification policies and is many ways a sincere attempt to create mutual linkages and exchanges between the two Koreas that are relatively autonomous from other global security initiatives and geopolitical adventures. Albeit, support for the project is conditioned by a particular kind of nationalism that is important to point out. Pro-unification policies have long been a rallying cry of South Korean social movements, including both those within the nationalist left (or NL) movements as well as other tendencies and NGOs who may have other priorities but in general favor exit from cold war social and political configurations. This is in a sense why social movements in Korea are very reticent about criticizing North Korean Human Rights issues, including the potential conflicts around labour issues in the KIC, even while successfully organizing against the degree of exception offered in special economic zone projects in the South. Even members of the left moderate faction of the labour movements as well as members of other non-NL labour movement tendencies are very cautious here. Only member of what is called the ultra-left faction – a position more akin to classical syndicalism – tend to criticize the zone as, at best, a capitalist-led peace initiative. One concern that each perspectives does share though is around the interest the zone is receiving from both South Korean conglomerates and multi-national corporations. A number of South Korean grassroots groups do not want to see the zone become another runaway factory zone like those one sees in other regions like Southeast Asia. Thus support from Korean civil society is highly contingent to say the least.

The project is also part of the legacy of the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun presidencies, both having a legacy in the democracy movement and both of whom have been highly critical of large domestic conglomerates. Thus, the Kaesong complex, though developed in partnership with Hyundai-Asan, is designed to benefit small and mid-sized Korean firms having trouble competing with low wage light manufacturing firms in China and Southeast Asia. The cost of labour in the zone is only $57 US a month (with other incentives that may increase this number up to 100), and land rent and infrastructure are very cheap. Albeit, the work process is still labour intensive as complicated industrial technology such as lasers and heavy chemicals are forbidden under the proliferation security initiative that South Korea has signed.

I was fortunate enough to visit the area in March of 2007 on a tour organized for foreign government and business groups. As of late the Korean government has been scheduling plenty of tours to the KIC for both domestic and international politicians and business groups and is partially opening the complex up to foreign investment to help generate support. This is part of a wider effort to sell the project as an alternative form of engagement with the north and, even in the US, these efforts have won the support of politicians on both the right and left as a form of political cooperation and rehearsal for future interactions. The tour basically spent 6 hours in the area, but was a valuable ethnographic experience in that it allowed me to gauge some of the interests in the zone from foreign politicians and capitalists as well as some of the conditions on the ground.

First off, what I can say is that there is tremendous capitalist interest in the project. And with it comes some of the classic gender stereotyping and capitalist glee that we’ve seen in runaway factory zones in South East Asia. Conversing with a few members of the EU chamber of commerce about the foreign interest in the project one of them said to me: “You see, the North Koreans, they possess very special finger skills, much better than the Chinese or Malaysians or Filipinos.” “Yes, and they only cost $US 57 a month,” chimed in his Colleague. This cliché, a kind of gendered nationalism, is also repeated in a different way by a left-liberal South Korean daily newspaper, the Hankyoreh, which runs flash ads in support of the project on both its English and Korean internet pages. The text running over the images of female factory workers in their ads (pictured below) reads: “At their diligent fingertips a hopeful future is being molded.” Here, women workers, by their labour, are seen ‘nurturing the economy’ for peace and re-unification. So, a particular scenario is set up here that gives these workers a epic task without inquiring into why they have been assigned it.

At the moment, the KIC project is only open to Korean small and mid-sized businesses but foreign firms are allowed to pursue joint-ventures with these companies, part of the reason that this trip was organized was to explain some the procedures around this. During a presentation by the KIC Joint Management Committee, foreign business members were very interested in learning what the regulatory hurdles were to opening up shop here. Many were dismayed about restriction on higher technology machine goods, and a number of lawyers from multinational law firms were also present to ask about infrastructure contracts and intellectual property regulations. When one journalist asked about how much workers are paid and whether it is verifiable that the workers receive this pay I heard one businessman exclaim: “that is the sort of question that only a journalist would ask!”

Actually the issue of labour control and of wages is very important and is this goes back to my second concern mentioned above. The joint management committee could not offer a satisfactory answer as to whether the workers were being paid the stated wages, nor could a scholar engaged in inter-Korean projects that I interviewed. The committee asserted that though the North Korean government kept the cash for foreign exchange, workers were paid in NK won and extra rations. The scholar told me that as far as he knew, productive workers were compensated well, as the North Korean government is very interested in the production process. In fact, it is possible that at the moment working at the KIC may be indeed be a form of privilege, 2/3 of the workers are from Pyongyang and the others are from Kaesong, so we are not talking about the bottom of the North Korean social structure here.

The workers that I saw were between 20-45, I would guess, and this seems backed up by the official KIC stats. That said, they were thoroughly regimented and obviously told not to talk to anyone. This is in contrast to the North Korean managers who helped organize the tour. I could actually converse with them, in both English and Korean (well, at the low intermediate level that I can speak), so when our tour actually did get around to visiting some factories I was kind of in a surprised lull, used to conversing with our North Korean hosts who where very chatty, and expecting more of the same I said high to one or two of the workers – only to quickly rediscover that indeed this was regimented and disciplined social space that we had entered as they workers remained still or continued working. One of my informants on the KIC says that workers from the North and South do interact and a few South Korean workers who I talked to on the site said that the workers do take their breaks together or eat lunch together periodically. There have also been small labour conflicts in the complex, but these take place between the body that regulates North Korean workers and representatives from the South; however, there is not much room here for external monitoring of what happens in labour conflicts or indeed in industrial accidents. Little is known of actual individual cases rather than just general complaints. The North Korean military is also technically in charge of the area and they are there in some presence, though not in uniform. There is a hospital in the complex and it has been used by workers from both sides, but as to the long care needed for victims of serious accidents or even under what regulatory framework this and other conflicts would be dealt with is all guess work due to the ad hoc nature of the project. Obviously some solid, gender sensitive ethnographic work with these workers would be quite useful here but at the moment it is nearly impossible to organize.

This is not to say that however, that gross violations of workers dignity have occurred or will frequently emerge in the complex, but the potential is there. Actually, for the moment the factories and infrastructure are nicer than any light manufacturing area I’ve visited in the South, and miles ahead of the attic and basement sweat shops owned and run by subcontractors around Dongdaemun market in Seoul. There are also plans to expand the complex up to and including Kaesong city, encompassing eventually up to 350,000 workers. Though my guess is that this will not happen without some substantial thaw in North Korea's internal social system. Thus, for the moment the complex remains a highly experimental space where, at the moment, we have very few ways of knowing how these workers lives are regulated, especially in everyday North Korean society, except for a few snapshots and an analysis of the larger contingencies that shape the project that I’ve tried to describe above. Thus, even the ability of companies to profit from what seems a highly regimented and gendered workforce operating at a convergence of South Korean capitalism and North Korean one-party state socialism is contingent on the support it receives as a unification project as well as the ‘zone of confusion’ that lies around workers rights there. However, if none of the ill effects of either social structure are not bracketed with some sense of individual agency and collective rights, I do not think the future of this project will be very bright for the workers involved.
(Picture of Hyundai founder Chung Ju Young with Kim Jong Il and perhaps one of Chung's son's, this photo was hanging up at Hyundai Asan's headquarters in the KIC)

Actually, a final point, about the need for a better imagination for projects such as these, can be directed towards those that say North Korean workers can gain a chance at a better bio-politics – meaning in this case better standards of consumption goods and personal care -- through engaging in spatially selective ways with market formations – a position repeated by some prominent scholars. Though I can sympathize and understand why some scholars might make these claims, I think it is important to look into what might be the regulation on the ground and try to imagine what a better imagination for such projects might be, one that better considers under what a fuller sense of freedom might mean for these workers both in their own terms and in the perspective of peace and re-unification. For it is possible to criticize or re-imagine such projects without falling into the kind of discourse over rights that resonates with hawkish American foreign policy. But at the moment this is impeded by both a gendered nationalism and a thick zone of confusion and exception around these workers' daily lives and their rights in the workplace.

(c)left Jamie Doucette 2007, thx to S. Kress for the Photos


  1. Interesting stuff. Can I ask you how you managed to organise your trip? Is it open to anyone?

  2. Very interesting report, thank you. The syndicalists you mention, are they to be found in academe, or in e.g. the KCTU?

    And if you find the time, I'd like to know what you think of this bit of propaganda ..

  3. There have been about 30 or so trips there in the last 6 months, mostly for business and media groups, diplomats, etc... A friend of mine at a European company invited me to attend with her. The trip was organized by a Foreign Chamber of Commerce.

    They do hope to make Kaesong city a tourism zone, but I don't think it is likely yet. These tours are not allowed to leave the complex -- with the exception of lunch at a restaurant on the periphery of Bo Dong Ni, the nearest town. Shame, because it would be fun to visit Kaesong, it's apparently quite a nice city