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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Unification for capital?

The English version of the Korean news website Oh My News has this article on the first South Korean factory to start operations in the new industrial complex in Kaesong on the northern side of the border that divides Korea in half. It makes pots and pans and apparently the first delivery to a Seoul department store sold out on the same day. Today it was reported that another factory started manufacturing semi-conductors in the complex. Much of the rhetoric around the Kaesong project focuses on improving North-South relations through economic cooperation. But it is worth asking who is really going to benefit from this. Surely a solution to the conflict on the Korean peninsula is only really going to be achieved at a political level, when all the sides involved are willing to negotiate sincerely?

Actually, today's piece on the Yonhap website is quite honest about the motivations behind the Kaesong industrial park project:
SJ Tech became the second South Korean firm to operate in the pilot zone of the complex being built by South Korea in the North's border city of Kaesong, a few kilometers from the tense inter-Korean border.The multi-billion dollar project, a product of the historic inter-Korea summit in 2000, is meant to help thousands of labor-intensive South Korean firms take advantage of the North's cheap but skilled laborers. The average monthly pay for a North Korean worker is set at US$57.
The cynicism of this statement from the South Korean government news agency is rather surprising. It shows that this is really the beginning of a 'unification' of the Korean peninsula for capital and nothing more. North Korea is potentially every South Korean corporation's fantasy - a country where the workers are skilled, speak the same language but are paid a fraction of South Korean workers and cannot organise to improve their conditions. A comment left under the Oh My News article points the finger at the South Korean unions for their failure to speak up about this. Personally I think this is a deliberate attack on the the left in the South disguised as concern for North Korean workers, but it does raise the important question of how the left should treat this issue.

I have no doubts that the only people who will benefit from projects like the Kaesong complex are the North Korean bureaucracy/ruling class (who will probably be taking large kickbacks of one sort or another) and South Korean big business who have found themselves a whole new set of workers to exploit. Unification cannot be left in the hands of either of these gangs of thieves - only the people of the Korean peninsula can achieve a just and lasting unification of their country.


At December 29, 2004 11:15 AM, Blogger Antti Leppänen said...

Hello, nice to pay a visit to your blog. This is becoming a habit.

In just another of all the DPRK documents (this one was made by the French), the writer Hwang Seok-yeong himself had approximately the following to say about the Kaesong project. (Translated and copied as such from the Finnish-language subtitles I provided for the broadcasting company)
If we are going to be honest, -
Building factories
in the Northern side -
and manufacturing cheap products
with the Northern labor force -
means that North Korea
will be made into a domestic colony.
You really raise a good question. At the time when the project was launched, it was quite strange to read positive appraisals of the US-Mexican maquiladora system in Hankyoreh. But I guess even the US-dominated international capital can be good in some sense, especially if a similar arrangement is supposed to contribute to the Korean unification...

At December 29, 2004 12:41 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

Thanks for visiting.
I think Hwang Sog-yong's comments are spot on. Actually he's in London at the moment and I've been wanting to meet him for a while so hopefully I'll have a chance to chat to him about this in the near future.
Unfortunately I don't have much faith that South Korean capitalists can play a positive role in unification. The Korean peninsula problem is so tied up with international geopolitical rivalries that I think a solution has to be reached at a political level.
I don't think I can say exactly what the attitude of the South Korean left should be to this sort of thing, but I do think they should avoid just trailing the Roh government (or the North Koreans for that matter) and try to take up a principled, independent position that puts the Korean people first.


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