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North Korea has repeatedly barred South Korean managers from the Kaesong industrial complex, a joint industrial park just north of the demilitarised zone. But this is not just the latest rhetorical threat in a tense game of high politics: if Pyongyang does not relent, it will jeopardise the livelihoods of 54, North Korean workers and a decade-old symbol of inter-Korean co-operation.
The effects of such developments at the ground level of North Korean society are not often considered by the outside world, but they could be more important in the long term than the current crisis in international politics. Although the North Korean regime tries to limit the contaminative effects of special economic zones for instance by placing them at the extremities of the country , such enclaves do serve as a conduit for external information and ideas into North Korean society.
Through dozens of interviews with North Korean refugees, I have learned how a growing number of ordinary North Koreans are learning about the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and the effect this is having. The easiest way for most North Koreans to find out what is happening in other parts of the country remains word of mouth.
Joo, a recent defector from Chongjin, recalled that people in her home town would say: "Even though words have no feet, they travel a thousand miles. I was surprised that a lot of people don't know their next-door neighbour here. She said: "In North Korea everybody does, and those human networks are important for getting useful information, because people have learned to not pay attention to the government's reports. This gossip network carries news from Kaesong in the south-west all the way to the north-eastern regions where many North Korean refugees come from.
There, they hear stories from brothers and uncles who return from military service in frontline areas close to Kaesong. The workers in the complex also have relatives all over the country, and information spreads quickly through those family contacts. Then there are informal business networks. For instance, one woman told me that doctors from her hospital would go to Kaesong to buy South Korean medicine — known to be far superior to North Korean medicine — to sell at a premium to wealthy patients.