A trip to Oido
A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I decided to go to Oido in eastern Ansan to look at the sea. We never made it (due mainly to my bad directions) but we did get a nice bus tour of the area.
Now, to the extent that people think of Ansan at all, they think of Oido; a huge collection of factories and warehouses. Going through there, I was struck by two things. The first was the smell. The collection of chemicals there must have shaved several weeks off our lives.
The second was the number of foreigners there. It is the only place I know of, other than Itaewon and maybe Dongduchon, where there are more foreigners than Koreans (how many months or years those chemicals are shaving off their lives is an issue for another day).
If you have lived in Korea for a while, you are aware of the issues surrounding foreign industrial workers in Korea. There have been increasing calls for Korea to reform its migrant system and periodic crack-downs on illegal migrant "3D" workers.
The reason for all those migrant laborers being here is the simple fact that there is more work than there are workers. Even after the "IMF" financial crisis slowed down economic growth, there are some jobs that South Koreans just don't want to do, including much of the factory work in Oido. So hundreds of thousands of workers are shipped from poor countries to do the work that the locals won't.
That is a common story in developed nations. You have Latin Americans in the United States, Turks in Germany and North Africans in France. But what none of those countries has is a neighbor that shares the same culture and history, and which desperately needs money.
Thinking about this I had an epiphany; why doesn't the South Korean government invite some of their North Korean brothers and sisters to come down and work in these factories? After all, as bad as conditions can be in the plants they can't be as bad as those in parts of North Korea, can they?
If ever there was a case in which the two Koreans should cooperate, this is it. South Korean factory owners would benefit by having laborers who speak the same language as their managers. Using Northern workers in the South could also be a first step in joint development projects as workers trained in the South could become foremen on new South Korean-owned businesses in the North.
But the big winner would be the North. The cash-starved country could gain the remittances of hundreds of thousands of workers.
By the numbers
Worker remittances are an often under-appreciated form of international exchange but they can be substantial. For example, in 2001 Latin American workers in the United States sent about $21 billion to their home countries, only one billion dollars less than North Korea's entire GDP
North Korean workers in the ROK wouldn't send that much money home, but their contribution to their home country could be substantial. There are currently over 350,000 foreign workers in South Korea. If 200,000 of them were replaced by North Koreans and those North Korean workers sent 550,000 won (about half a factory worker's pay) home each month, the North Korean economy would gain 1,320,000,000,000 won a year (or about $1,147,826,176; I did the math).
Now, If I had a chance to add 5% to my GDP and give jobs to 200,000 of my people, I would jump at it. But then again, I'm not a maniacal fuzzy-headed waste-of-flesh little dictator.
Reality gets in the way
As good an idea as it is to have North Koreans join their Korean-Chinese cousins in South Korean shops and factories, it will never happen, for the simple reason that opening up the Koreans to each other at that level will lead to the eventual overthrow of the North Korean dictatorship.
The reason for that is simple. What do you think will happen when hundreds of thousands of common North Koreans, and by extension their millions of friends and relatives, find out how much better life in the South is? A place where people actually drive cars on the roads. A place where the power is on all day. A place where children can study in heated classrooms. Hell, a place where your rice bowl is actually full of RICE!
How will the North Koreans feel when they see how fat their Southern cousins have become, not just the elite but normal people (Obesity is a terrible thing until you meet some really skinny people, be they starving North Korean Children or Sarah Michelle Gellar)? I can guess how they would feel; like they have been ripped-off by their overlords in Pyongyang.
In short, if large numbers of normal North Koreans were ever exposed to life in the South, Kim Jeong-il would soon find himself hanging from a lamp post.
Call Pyongyang's unification bluff
I'd love to see someone in the Roh government propose any kind of worker exchange program with North Korea, if for no other reason than to see what kind of B.S. the Norks would fling to justify their saying "no." But, by refusing the offer, Pyongyang would expose their unification hypocrisy for all to see.
Frankly, I have gotten sick and tired of North Korea (and their "patriot" student supporters) pretending that sending hand-picked cheer-leading robots to Taegu or inviting South Korean tourists on segregated (and highly subsidized) tours of Kumgangsan shows any real desire for unification of the Korean people. Pyongyang has been blowing smoke of Seoul's backside on this ever since Kim Dae-jung took office and I don't expect any improvement under Roh Moo-hyun.
But I can dream.