In The News

The Face at the Window: A Glimpse Into North Korea

February 13, 2008

Standing almost with his nose against the glass, he was smiling broadly and waving his open hand slowly back and forth as our bus full of South Korean tourists passed in front of his ground-level apartment building. What was this elderly citizen of Kaesong City in North Korea saying to us? Throughout our one-day visit to this ancient Korean capital just north of the heavily-fortified dividing line police and soldiers had kept ordinary citizens at a distance. Though many stopped and stared as we passed or disembarked at tourist sites, no adult had dared make a gesture toward us. Groups of young children, some just out of school were an exception. Perhaps they had not been warned, or their exuberance overcame them. They ran toward our bus waving vigorously. At one point even a group of adolescent boys waved, a bit sheepishly. The South Koreans had been warned not to wave or make gestures from the moving bus, but some could not resist responding to the children.

Most of the recent news coverage of North Korea has focused on the stalled Six-Party Talks aimed at shutting down the North’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, mostly out of sight of the media, a significant new development is taking place that highlights other forces at work on the peninsula. Almost every day since early December some three hundred and fifty South Koreans have visited the North Korean city of Kaesong (population around 300,000), just north of the heavily fortified border between South and North. Unlike other cross-border projects, such as visits to the Kumgang Mountain Resort, an enclave on the eastern side of the peninsula, or humanitarian meetings in the model city of Pyongyang, for the first time large numbers of South Koreans are driving through the heart of an ordinary North Korean city. Like clockwork, ten or eleven buses pass through the DMZ at 8:00 every morning shuttling the South Korean visitors (who pay a little less than US$200) first through the Special Economic Zone housing modern South Korean factories on the outskirts of Kaesong, then to a wooded historical park north of the city, and finally into the heart of the city itself. The bus convoy crisscrosses downtown streets virtually empty of other vehicles, visiting historical sites sprinkled about the city. The citizens of Kaesong walking along the dusty sidewalks or riding bicycles pause to watch.

While there is no opportunity for ordinary South and North Koreans to meet and talk, the North Korean guides”two or three on each bus”and the many attendants at the souvenir shops, snack kiosks and the downtown traditional restaurant where a magnificent lunch is served seem eager to talk with the visitors. These are trusted people who have been carefully vetted and trained to prepare them for interaction with their visiting neighbors from the South. This interaction is not insignificant but, again, it is the impact on the silent citizens of the steady flow through their city that seems more significant. The visitors and hosts are strangers to one another, and yet it is not hard to sense that silent messages are communicated.

For the South Koreans Kaesong is probably the most foreign destination they can visit in East Asia, in spite of it being populated by their ethnic cousins. The contrast with the mega-city of Seoul, just thirty-five miles to the south, could not be more stark. It is not just the barren landscape, the drab public buildings and shabby apartment blocks, or the eerie quiet contrasting so sharply with the cacophony, bustle and lights of the crowded streets of Seoul. As one participant observed, Kaesong appears lifeless, colorless; the people appear tired, listless. Despite the best efforts of the North Korean tour guide to distract his passenger-guests with stories from Kaesong’s history as the capital of the Koryo dynasty or even with love songs and poetry, the South Koreans’ eyes were focused on the scenes of the strange land they were passing through. The travel distance between Seoul and Kaesong is short, but the distance between the two economies and societies is vast. Now that gulf”and the implications for the dream of unification”are obvious for thousands of visitors to see.

What about the North Korean citizens of Kaesong? They see well dressed, camera-toting Southerners of all ages clamoring over their historic relics, eating food that only the elite enjoy, and flashing dollars to buy souvenirs (one dollar can be converted to a week’s wage in the North). This daily encounter with South Korean cousins is one more impression to add to what they are learning through the nearby Special Economic Zone. The mothers and daughters of many Kaesong families are working in one of the thirty South Korean factories in the three-year old zone established by Hyundai-Asan and the Korean government. Some 20,000 North Koreans, mostly young women, now work in the zone, and they commute each day to and from the zone on buses similar to those the tourists are riding. The workers do not bring home wages; instead it is reported that they receive payment in extra rations of food and essential goods.

Over the past two months some 18,000 South Koreans have made the one-day tour to Kaesong. Another 20,000 have booked up the seats for the next two months. Some of the South Koreans are elderly former citizens of Kaesong who fled to the South during the war and are looking for some sign of their old neighborhoods. Most are simply curious to finally see first-hand the other Korea that has been both sworn enemy and hungry petitioner for aid. Many bring along their young children. One visitor expressed the common hope that this project will contribute to the gradual opening of the North and better understanding between the closely related neighbors.

What about the people of Kaesong, now the daily objects curiosity? What are the old man at the window and the others who stop and stare thinking? What are they trying to say? The old man seemed to say, “We know who you are and we are glad that you are here.” But does everyone in Kaesong welcome their wealthy Southern cousins? Are they encouraged by the contrast they see between their grim situation and the fantastic lives of these visitors? I’m not sure. But it certainly seems that this new form of contact between South and North, added to the impact of large-scale employment in the nearby factories, cannot but portend a sea change for the people and the city of Kaesong. How this change in a major border city will affect overall perceptions and policies in North Korea is an open question. Some may see it as the wedge that pries open the isolated North, exposing the people to realities that the regime has worked hard to shield them from. On the other hand, it could be a training ground for South-North interaction where both sides learn useful lessons to guide gradual and respectful opening to the other. Only time will tell.

Edward Reed is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Korea.

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