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Made in Korea: Rare look at jointly run factories

Saturday - 4/6/2013, 11:18pm  ET

In this photo taken on Sept. 21, 2012 photo, a North Korean woman sews a button on a suit at a factory in Kaesong, North Korea, run by ShinWon, a South Korean clothing maker. Since April 3, North Korean authorities have barred South Koreans, including ShinWon managers, from entering North Korea through the Demilitarized Zone to get to the Kaesong industrial complex where some 120 South Korean companies run factories employing North Korean workers. (AP Photo/Jean H. Lee)

JEAN H. LEE
Associated Press

There is a North Korean factory with no portraits of the country's late leaders on the walls, no North Korean flags, no hand-painted posters screaming party slogans. Everything from the tissues to the toilets comes from South Korea.

Bent over bolts of wool and rayon, North Koreans work quietly to the hum of sewing machines making shirts, suits and overcoats that will go out with vaguely Italian names. Virtually the only hint of North Korea in the factory is a calendar on the wall that proclaims, "The Great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il Will Always Be With Us."

Today, this factory and others in the Kaesong industrial complex, managed by South Koreans and staffed by North Korean workers, face the prospect of closure. Since Wednesday, North Korea has refused to let in South Korean managers and trucks bearing food, materials and supplies.

It's seen as punishment for Seoul's decision to forge ahead with joint military drills with the United States that continue through April and have incensed Pyongyang, which sees the exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion. Restricting travel through the armed border is also a way to remind the South Koreans that a state of war remains intact on the Korean Peninsula 60 years the fighting ended with a truce. Pyongyang also is angry with Seoul for backing tightened U.N. sanctions on North Korea for conducting a banned nuclear test in February.

North Korea has been raising its war rhetoric for weeks now, but so far, Kaesong is the main casualty. More than 500 South Koreans remained there Saturday and are free to stay, but their companies are beginning to run out of supplies. They hope this disruption ends up being similar lasts no longer than one in 2009 that lasted about a week.

For nearly a decade, the sprawling complex on the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone has been held up as a crucible of reconciliation, a test case for how reunification of the two Koreas might look. But as relations deteriorated in recent years, it became a prickly subject for South Korea.

The last media visits to factories from the South Korean side are believed to have been in 2007. In September, The Associated Press visited from the North Korean side, accompanied by officials from the North-South management committee that administers the special economic zone.

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Kaesong seems like a slice of South Korea transplanted in North Korea, especially when driving in from Pyongyang.

From downtown Kaesong, the road to the factory park on the outskirts of town runs past rice paddies and simple cottages with tiled roofs. Oxen trudge along the sides pulling carts and a man cycles by with a dead pig strapped to back of his bicycle. A woman sitting by the side of the road has her head in her hands, a small cooler of drinks for sale next to her.

Enter the military-guarded gate to the vast, sparsely populated factory park and you'll find a Hyundai Oilbank gasoline station, two convenience stores with plastic picnic tables outside and a branch of the South Korea's Woori Bank. There are blue road signs in English and Korean, and lane dividers and bike lanes on the road. None of those things exist in the rest of North Korea.

The complex has stoplights, unlike downtown Kaesong, but not much traffic besides the Hyundai buses that shuttle North Koreans workers to and from work, and the Kia, Hyundai and Ssangyong cars driven by the South Korean managers.

The complex, conceived following the historic 2000 summit between late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, broke ground in 2003. The first factory opened in December 2004. The plan was for South Korean firms to build 500 factories as part of a pledge to help develop North Korea's economy, according to Pak Chol Su, vice director of the General Bureau for Central Guidance, which manages Kaesong.

Pak, who is North Korean, noted that a June 2000 agreement signed by both Korean governments calls for improving North Korea's economy "equally, on the principle of mutual assistance."

Today, some 120 South Korean businesses have factories in Kaesong. He said they employ about 51,000 North Koreans, mostly women, making the complex the biggest provider of jobs in Kaesong, the country's third-largest city. Shoes and clothing make up 70 percent of the goods produced; the rest are largely chemical and electrical products, he said.

Hundreds of South Koreans run the factories, some living during the week in Kaesong and others commuting every day across the border. Goods, supplies and food are brought in by truck every morning, and leave in the late afternoon with finished products.

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