LOCATION: kaesong, north korea
---scroll down for pictures, that's certainly the reason you're here, no?---
A month ago, I had the unique opportunity to visit, over the course of a long independent chrononautic expedition, the city of Kaesong, second-largest in the hermit dictatorship that is North Korea. I had considered taking this task off and on before and after I went, but decided that it'd be a good way to return to the SF0 community, particularly when discussing a city wedged between the future and the darkest past.
After being closed to the outside world for untold years, Hyundai Asan in the South teamed up with the Reunification Ministry and made a curious offer to the North: a light industrial park, staffed by North Koreans, with managerial assistance from some of the South's best and brightest minds. The North would then sell the goods to the South, making the government a profit and allowing its workers to receive working wages.
The trade-off? The North would allow visitors to locations in its closed nation. Originally they only permitted travelers to see a remote mountain resort in the northeast of the country, but Kaesong, former capital of the Goreyo dynasty of a united Korea, was a much more profitable attaction. And so, after much cajoling, the North agreed: visitors would be allowed, under constant guard. The only exceptions would be members of the militaries of the United States or South Korea. As an American, this would likely be my only opportunity to cross. It was only the fifth time a group of Westerners was allowed to join the tour.
Two weeks before my journey, the North shot a South Korean tourist at the mountain resort. The South closed that tour and threatened to close the Kaesong route as well. The North bristled. We were held in the DMZ for an hour by the North as a not-so-subtle message to the South: if you are serious about reunification, buzz off. The South shrugged and did nothing, and we were eventually let through.
REASONS FOR INABILITY TO VISIT TEN YEARS LATER: varied
above: children in the windows - most ducked when I raised my camera to take this picture, which was very illegal under the rules of the trip
The future of North Korea is strange and uncertain, but one of three things will happen to Kaesong.
Perhaps the saddest future is the one they seem to be heading towards, despite the fits and starts: the reunification process will reach a point where it will become a factory town, wholly subsidized and owned by the Hyundai partnership in something approximating a trans-national low-wage labor pool. Rather than reunify, the South will simply subsume its poorer Northern cousins until they become little more than a way to keep costs down. Already, the few Korean War veterans I traveled with looked out with tears in their eyes as we passed the tiny industrial park, the only place with traffic lights in all of North Korea. They knew that if the companies involved could turn North Korea into a workforce without having to worry about tax hikes after reunification to feed their starving countrymen, they'd do it in a heartbeat.
But the basic life of North Koreans before Hyundai was even less rosy. The second option would be to re-shut the border and return to the full emptiness and despair of the dark, famine-plagued dictatorship. If the door was shut tomorrow, in ten years Kaesong would only decay further and grow forever out of reach.
I don't think another war will rip apart the peninsula - the two governments have a strange symbiosis that they know they cannot escape. But the "demilitarized zone" (DMZ) is the most militarized zone on the planet. In the pipe-dream of a third option, maybe one day the minesweepers will come through the eerie forests and quiet rolling hills, knocking down the bunkers and opening roads. Maybe one day families separated when Kaesong fell in the Chinese advance at the end of the war will be reunited. And maybe Kaesong will become a beacon of the future, much like how Seoul evolved from a provincial US Army fortress on a hill to the hard-charging, culturally booming capital it is today. Maybe, in ten years, the best of all possible futures will make the Kaesong I visited one nobody will have to see ten years from now.