AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Despite mounting tension in at least one place on the peninsula, it's still business as usual. Roughly 6 miles north of the border, inside North Korea, is the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The massive facility opened back in 2004. It produces goods for more than 100 South Korean firms and employs some 55,000 North Korean workers. The complex plays a key role in the North's economy and is perhaps the best bellwether for just how bad things are or aren't between the North and the South. For more, we're joined by Professor Aidan Foster-Carter from Leeds University. And we've said that the Kaesong Industrial Complex employs some 55,000 North Koreans, but tell me more about them. Who are they? How much are they paid? And are these jobs highly coveted?
AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER: Yes. Fifty-five thousand North Koreans workers, some of them, apparently, highly qualified. North Korea does have a universal education system there. A lot of it is wasted learning imaginary things about their leaders, but the rest is mainly science. So some of them, we think are graduates. But the key thing, I suppose, that underlies it is the wage level. These people earn a basic of $60. I'm tempted to ask your listeners to guess. Sixty dollars per hour, no. A day? No. Week? No. Sixty-two dollars per month. OK. It's appalling at one level, but these are probably the best jobs in North Korea. They're reasonably well-looked after, and the government takes a bit of that. I can imagine already the labor rights issues being raised. But it is a precious thing between the two Koreas, and this is the way countries start. So thank goodness, it's there. I'm glad you're asking me about it.
CORNISH: Well, what exactly do they make at this plant?
FOSTER-CARTER: This and that. I mean, this is the smaller companies. We're not talking about household names like Hyundai and Samsung. Actually, a very interesting fact is that the big names Korean companies listeners would've heard of won't touch North Korea. And, of course, South Korea itself, now a developed country, a member of OECD, but 40 or 50 years ago, poorer than many countries in Africa are now.
So they came up with small companies paying Korean workers very little to make stuff that was good and could be sold internationally. Now, of course, South Korean wages quite properly are much higher, so these firms have to go overseas - China, Indonesia - but what could be better than Koreans speaking your language on your doorstep? So they make all the usual stuff: textiles, watches, kitchen appliances. It's pretty low-level stuff. It's not high-tech or cutting edge, but it's stuff that people use and need.
CORNISH: So you've given us a sense of what this means economically for South Korea through this business community. But what exactly should we read into the fact that work is still very much going on at Kaesong even though people have talked about the hotline being cut and that sort of thing? People are still going to work. So what does that mean?
FOSTER-CARTER: They sure are, and we should be glad of that. I think the Kaesong Zone is the best bellwether or canary in the mine or what you will. There can be nuclear threats. All kinds of propaganda can come out of Pyongyang. But for as long as this place still continues, then you know there is a different reality on the ground. They can declare they're in a state of war with South Korea, but the South Korean workers are still going over there. So in a way, it calls their bluff, but they haven't closed it. I think we can be glad of that. That's a very important fact to take into account, balancing some of the war talk.
CORNISH: As someone who watches the Kaesong Complex, what are the things you're looking for, the things that would cause you to worry?
FOSTER-CARTER: Basically, any suggestion of its closure. If the North were actually to close it, they have threatened that they might do so mercilessly. They have to always add the hard adverb to show what hard guys they are. If they close it, let alone, there are more serious nastier games they could play, taking hostage the several hundred South Koreans who are there at any given time. That would worry me. But while it carries on, I think we can probably sleep fairly soundly.
CORNISH: Well, Aidan Foster-Carter, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FOSTER-CARTER: It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much for asking me.
CORNISH: That's Aidan Foster-Carter of Leeds University describing the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.