Dispatch: South Korean workers who defy threat of war to commute to North
Hundreds of South Koreans who work inside the North face being taken hostage instantly should war break out. Malcolm Moore speaks to the commuters defying Pyongyang's threats for the sake of the daily grind.
The Inter Korean Transit Office in Paju (AFP)
By Malcolm Moore, at the Inter Korean Transit Office, Paju 11:04PM BST 01 Apr 2013
Seijin Roh, a mild-mannered South Korean seamstress, may have the most precarious commute in the world. Each Monday morning for the past four years, the 55-year-old has woken up just after 4am, washed and dressed, and driven into North Korea. During the working week she lives in a dormitory in a factory six miles inside the rogue state, with a nightly payphone call as her only contact to home.
If North Korea were to attack the South - and last week Pyongyang again declared the two countries to be in "a state of war" - Mrs Roh would be instantly taken hostage. But this Monday morning, she was making her usual commute, along with a few hundred others, in perhaps the most reassuring sign that war is not imminent on the Korean peninsula.
"The reality is a long way from what you see in the media," she said, as she waited for her entrance permit at the Inter Korean Transit Office on the border. "When I go to work, I feel no tension at all. The North Koreans who work with me sometimes laugh about it." Not all who work with Mrs Roh were so determined to persevere in spite of the growing threats of war from the Communist dictatorship.
While more than 800 people registered to enter Kaesong on Monday morning, only 352 showed up, although it is unclear whether they feared North Korean aggression or the dozens of domestic television cameras that were ringing the permit office to interview them. Indeed, analysts believe that true bellwether of relations between the two sides is whether the Kaesong Industrial Park, where Mrs Roh works, remains open.
Founded in 2005, the park allows 123 South Korean companies to profit from the cheap and skilled labour of over 53,000 North Korean workers. In return, the North gets much-needed foreign currency.
The only remaining link between the two countries, Kaesong has never had to close, weathering some of the most fraught episodes of the past few years, including the nuclear test of 2009 and the shelling of Yongpyeong island the following year. Last week, however, Pyongyang warned that if the South continued to insinuate that the North was desperate for hard currency, it would "shut down the zone without mercy".
The situation was clearly taking its toll even on some of those braving the crossing. "It is hard to deny the possibility of being held hostage," said Yongja Oh, a 52-year-old factory owner. But she said that while no South Korean soldiers are allowed to enter Kaesong, there are maintenance workers who look after their security.
"Anyway," she said. "Nothing unusual has happened so far and I have not felt any change in the mood or atmosphere. But I do worry about my investment sometimes." Mrs Oh's name has been changed, along with all the other names in this article, since North Korean intelligence keeps a close eye on everyone connected to Kaesong.
Others were more bullish. “My family is not worried one bit about my security,” said 51-year-old Minsu Kim, a logistics worker. “As long as we do not provoke North Korea, we will be fine. And anyway, they would not dare to attack us. They know if they punch us once, they will get two punches back in return.”
To get to Kaesong, South Koreans first have to queue to cross the Unification bridge over the Imjin river, fortified with yellow and black anti-vehicle barriers and gun posts. On the other side of the bridge, the Satnav goes blank as they enter the no man's land between the two countries.
At the transit office, workers collect a key and put their valuables in lockers. A sign reminds them that all types of music devices are banned, as are mobile phones and chargers, newspapers, magazines, maps, computers, memory sticks, cameras, pharmaceuticals and fireworks.
At 7am, the permit office opens to grant entrance and the workers board special buses to Kaesong. Outsiders have not been granted entry to the park for years, but it is said to resemble a clean and well-appointed suburb of Seoul, with canteens and cafes for the workers and little traffic.
But no one making the trip on Monday was willing to consider the worst case scenario. "I refuse to think about it. Nothing bad will happen," said one worker.
"At the very worst, the park will simply shut down and we will return home," said another. "Even if they held us for a little while, you could not really call it a hostage situation."