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.
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.