Jamie Doucette and Seung-Ook Lee ask if there are lessons for policymakers in the actions of North and South Korea in setting up zones where they can work together.
When one hears the word globalisation, the image of North Korea rarely comes to mind. Long regarded as a hermit kingdom, a rogue state, and international outsider, it is perhaps the last place one would associate with globalisation. And yet, since the early 1990s, but accelerating in recent years, North Korea has pursued greater integration into the global economy via a series of territorial experiments with special economic zones.
This is not a novel strategy of political and economic integration in the East Asian region. The export processing zone, industrial complex, and free economic zone have long been associated with economic development in East and Southeast Asia and remain so to the degree that the continued and widespread use of spatially-selective zoning has spurred scholars to argue that it constitutes a distinct form of urbanisation (see the work of Keller Easterling, Aihwa Ong, and Bae-gyoon Park, for instance). In the case of North Korea, the application of ‘zoning technology’ serves not only important urban-industrial functions such as providing employment and training with new technology and labour processes, but also other important (geo)political economic roles.
The Kaesong Industrial Complex (hereafter KIC) — a zone jointly managed by North and South Korea, and located just above the De-Militarized Zone to the northwest of Seoul — stands out clearly in these regards. Currently around 54,000 workers from North Korea are employed there, working alongside hundreds of managers and technicians at 124 companies from South Korea. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, their combined output, which includes watches, automobile parts, clothing and textiles, amounted to more than $450 million in 2014. Investment in the KIC, as well as at other SEZ’s in the North such as the Rason SEZ – which attracts mostly Chinese and Russian capital – is seen as important sources of foreign currency, investment in plants and infrastructure and integration into global markets.
But the KIC also plays an important geopolitical role. While mainstream diplomacy regarding North Korea has long been animated by scenarios of collapse, hot engagement, and entente, the KIC has provided an alternative space at which to forge new relations and, if possible, to rehearse reunification: a long-held goal of South Korean politicians and social movements.
But what kind of space is the KIC? In a recent article, we argue that the KIC represents an experimental form of territoriality. We use the word territoriality here to cast light on the relations that have constructed and maintained the zone itself — rather than the term territory which focuses more on the boundaries that surround and contain what lies within it. We explore the ways in which the zone has been produced not only as a site of political engagement between the two Koreas, but also a space of work in which a largely female pool of North Korean workers are employed by small South Korean firms and who labour for relatively low wages and/or payment in kind (firms in the KIC supplement workers wages by distributing the South Korean snack cake ‘Choco-Pie,’ which is popular in the North).
We use the term experimental here also to highlight the provisional and still largely volatile nature of the zone due not only to concerns about low wages and labour exploitation, but also to the persistence of Cold War antagonisms on both sides of the border and among wider actors that condition the zone. The survival of Cold War politics on the peninsula means that the KIC often becomes a site for working out larger geopolitical conflicts: from North Korea’s nuclear program to the continuation of joint military exercises between the US and South Korea. The zone has faced repeated closures and work stoppages due to political tension on the peninsula; but at other times, such as during the recent hostilities between the Koreas over the summer, it remains one of the few open sources of communication.
While geopolitical antagonisms threaten the viability of the KIC, they have not stopped zonal development and urbanisation in other parts of North Korea. The message for policymakers here is that these forms of integration are happening, and perhaps the antagonistic geopolitical frame in which North Korea is often understood is not always the best to understand these more recent developments. Under its own direction, and perhaps inspired by China, North Korea has recently reformed its agricultural system, and is expanding a number of its economic zones in which Chinese capital is invested, and where workers tend to receive higher wages than in the KIC. Moreover, given the North’s willingness to experiment with economic zones, these may constitute important alternative spaces from which to develop new forms of dialogue and cooperation. Nonetheless, we argue, such cooperation should involve a wide range of democratic actors and robust labour standards.
The message for urbanists is that while cities as they have been conventionally understood are still important sites from which to study urban processes, not all that is urban is in cities. New forms of zoning have produced spaces that have many of the functions of cities — providing employment, urban infrastructure, and recreational facilities — but are administered in ways that are politically distinct from democratic forms of urban governance.
Our point in the article, and in this short post, however, is not to affirm these sites as something better or worse than what has come before, but merely to point out that they are a growing urban form and one that deserves attention from both policymakers and urbanists alike.