POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 5, 2013
SEOUL » When the order came last weekend to evacuate an industrial park in North Korea, Kwak Kyung-dock, a South Korean factory manager, said he was forced to flee with the suit on his back — and his car filled with so many boxes of the plastic machinery parts made at his factory that he had to tie several on the roof.
"I had to leave like a refugee," he said.
The flight of South Korean managers like Kwak, crossing the border in cars overburdened with gear from factories they may never see again, has become the enduring image of a standoff that began when the North successfully launched a long-range rocket in December.
The exodus was all the more alarming because for the nine years that North Koreans had worked in South Korean-owned factories at the Kaesong complex, it had seemed reassuring proof that no matter how heated the back-and-forth got, the two nations were unwilling to let things go too far.
Now that all of the managers have returned to South Korea, they are shedding light on the sprawling outpost of capitalism in the impoverished Communist state. Though it sometimes felt like a prison, to many it represented the only tangible hope that the two Koreas might one day be able to find common ground.
"Kaesong was like a mini reunification, the first time in 60 years of division where we ate out of the same rice pot," said Park Nam-seo, president of Comcase, a toy manufacturer who left Kaesong in March.
Since its creation during a thaw in inter-Korean relations nine years ago, the Kaesong park had grown from a small collection of buildings into a vast complex that became one of the world's most unusual investment enclaves. With its 123 South Korean-built factories powered with electricity from the South, and surrounded by tall fences guarded by North Korean soldiers, the park was a bright light in the darkness caused by electrical shortages in the North's failed command economy.
But last month, as tensions rose on the peninsula after North Korea was sanctioned for conducting a nuclear test, North Korea suspended operations at the complex, saying a final decision would depend on South Korea's attitude. The North withdrew its 54,000 workers, then cut off shipments of food and other supplies from the South.
By Friday, the South had withdrawn all of its citizens, who had worked mainly as managers and overseers at the park. Some of the South Korean managers expressed anger, saying that the park was being held hostage by politics.
"Just because the father and mother fight doesn't mean their 10-year-old child should be sent to an orphanage," said Yoo Chang-geun, president of SJTech, an auto parts maker with a factory in Kaesong. "It will be very sad if Kaesong closes, because it planted a dream of peace."
In interviews, more than a half-dozen of the South Korean managers said they had been reluctant to leave, and hoped to return as soon as possible.
They said their companies had become dependent on the North Korean plants, whose workers, ill-trained at first, quickly rivaled South Korean factory workers in skill, and for much lower wages. But just as important, the managers displayed an almost missionary-like zeal to use the park as a living laboratory of whether combining South Korean money and know-how with North Korean workers hungry for better lives could somehow provide a formula for peace and perhaps even reunification of the peninsula.
The South Korean managers said that after nine years, a yawning gulf still divided the managers, whose housing and restaurants were in the complex, from the North Korean workers, who commuted in every day. The South Koreans, as many as 1,000, were carefully checked every time they entered the North to ensure they were not carrying newspapers or other politically charged information. Even factory manuals were censored for mentions of capitalism or other banned ideas.
Lee Kyu-yong, a manager at SJTech's Kaesong factory, recalls how at first even basic communication was difficult because of huge differences in living standards. Once he meant to praise a North Korean by remarking that she had lost weight, but instead ended up offending her. Lee said he realized that in a society with famines, being plump was seen as more desirable.
Over time, he said, he was able to close that gap, at least a bit, and grew close enough with his company's 430 North Korean employees to talk about personal matters like families, though politics remained a forbidden topic.
"The human relations that we built have a value that go beyond calculation," Lee said.
Kwak said that while workers were careful what they talked about, customs agents and other North Korean government officials were less reticent in asking about South Korean politics, which is often negatively portrayed in the North's state-run news media.
He recalled one time when North Korean officials grew wide-eyed on hearing that the South Korean presidential election was a real contest in which the leader was chosen by votes, and not behind closed doors. They were even more fascinated to learn that the government cannot just tell the South's news media what to say, Kwak said.
"I told them, it doesn't work that way in South Korea," he said.
At the same time, being too open in conversation could cause problems for North Koreans, said the manager of a jewelry factory who asked not to be identified. He said that some of the North Korean workers also appeared to be informers, and if one appeared to grow too friendly with his South Korean supervisor, he would suddenly be transferred the next day to a different part of the factory.
The manager said he also heard of meetings that appeared to be self-criticism sessions, in which a North Korean worker was forced to stand before his peers and explain his behavior.
At the same time, the South Koreans said that working at the park appeared to slowly improve its workers' living standards. According to the Unification Ministry, South Korean companies paid $87 million in wages last year to North Korea, though it was unclear how much of that went to the workers, and how much the government kept.
Still, Lee Jong-mahn, who heads the Kaesong factory of Hosan Ace, a maker of laboratory equipment, said that while workers at first brought lunches that used corn meal, they later brought white rice, the more expensive grain of choice for Korean cuisine, and sometimes a side dish of fish, a source of protein that they did not bring before.
Others said they noticed that the North Koreans also dressed better than they once had, with women wearing fashionable bluejeans instead of the old, dour-looking skirts of nine years ago. Some even had cellphones, which were introduced in the North only recently.
"Kaesong has been good for business, but it has also been good for the two Koreas," said Lee, of Hosan Ace. "When people spend that much time together, they start to realize that even North Koreans aren't that different."