North Korea has shuttered the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a symbol of cooperation between North and South Korea that generated some $2 billion in trade each year. The move brings the peninsula even closer to war, and also closes a crucial source of word-of-mouth information for North Koreans.
The status of Kaesong, where some 51,000 North Korean employees work for 120 South Korean manufacturing companies, had grown increasingly precarious in the last few weeks, as tensions between the Kim Jong-un government and the US and South Korea mounted. Days ago, North Korea banned hundreds of South Korean managers from entering the facility. Still, production continued at a lower rate until Monday, when Kim’s government announced the withdrawal of Kaesong’s North Korean workforce.
Writing for The Guardian, Sokeel Park of the refugee group Liberty in North Korea, notes that Kaesong was not only a source of trade and hard currency, but also of news from the outside world—an invaluable resource in a country where listening to foreign radio broadcasts is highly illegal. The gossip network carried “news from Kaesong in the south-west all the way to the north-eastern regions where many North Korean refugees come from,” Park writes.
Even though the government confiscated about 90% of workers’ salaries, the Kaesong area had become relatively prosperous because of the factories, and the whole country became better-informed. It is widely known in North Korea that the South is more prosperous; Park said refugees claim that “the only ones who don’t know that South Korea is richer are newborn babies.” With Kaesong’s closure, North Koreans will be even poorer—and not just in financial terms.