North Koreans Missing More Work

Amid signs of worsening food shortages, laborers from North Korea appear to be eating less and missing more work.

Kaesong Workers 305 Workers check the quality of stainless steel cooking pots at an industrial park in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, Dec. 15, 2004.
AFP Photo

SEOUL—North Korean workers at the South-Korean-invested Kaesong Industrial Zone are missing more days of work, and South Korean sources working there believe it’s because they don’t have enough to eat.

“The workers’ health status has been deteriorating, and for that reason, the incidence of absence without leave has been on the rise,” said Kim Kyu Chol, a spokesman for the Civic Association for Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation, which promotes inter-Korean trade.

“South Korean enterprises invested in Kaesong are concerned about the negative impact this phenomenon has on productivity,” he said in an interview.

Absenteeism among the Kaesong workers has climbed from five percent to 15 percent since the industrial complex was opened in December 2004, Kim said.

The workers’ health status has been deteriorating..."
Kim Kyu Chol, Civic Association for Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation

South Korean witnesses also said fewer North Korean workers employed in the Kaesong Industrial Zone appear to be receiving lunch boxes when they come to work, and the contents of the lunch boxes they do receive are minimal.

Hidden hunger

North Korean authorities recently asked South Korean employers to provide noodles rather than the customary soup their North Korean workers usually receive, the sources said.

One source working in Kaesong said the North Koreans appeared to have taken great pains over the last four years to avoid eating their meager lunches in front of their South Korean managers.

When South Korean managers have asked to observe the North Korean workers at lunch, the North Koreans have reacted angrily and blocked access to the cafeteria, according to the source, who asked not to be named.

Most factories and other enterprises in North Korea operate far below maximum capacity, experts and officials say, and workers can last through the day with minimal nutrition.

But North Korean workers in Kaesong must be fully involved in production during their eight-hour shifts, with a short break for lunch, so adequate food is necessary.

Several South Korean sources interviewed about the health of North Korean workers spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears of North Korean retaliation against their businesses or against the Kaesong complex.

Signs of shortage

The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) recently concluded, based on a survey of 375 North Korean households, that more than 70 percent of North Koreans were supplementing their diet with difficult-to-digest weeds and grasses foraged from the countryside.

It also found that most adults had started skipping lunch, reducing their diet to two meals a day to cope with the food shortage.

Both of these developments marked the mid-1990s famine that killed as many as 2 million people, or up to 10 percent of the population.

The WFP said malnutrition rates among young children had improved over the years but remain high.

In a 2004 survey, 37 percent of children were found to be stunted, 23 percent were underweight, and 7 percent were "wasted." The World Health Organization regards stunting as a severe public health problem.

Cheap labor

The Kaesong Industrial Park, about 10 kms (six miles) north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, comprises 84 South Korean firms that employ some 35,000 North Korean workers.

The South Korean firms benefit from low labor costs to manufacture consumer goods such as watches, shoes, and clothing. North Korean workers earn only about $60 monthly—a fraction of what either Chinese or South Korean workers would earn for the same labor.

Pyongyang has hinted it may close the complex amid tense relations with Seoul—notably since South Korea’s conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in February.

A high-level North Korean military official visited the complex last week and asked South Koreans there how long it would take for them to pull out of it.

The official, Gen. Kim Yong Chol, inspected the complex on Nov. 6, Seoul's Unification Ministry said. Gen. Kim is a senior official with the North's powerful National Defense Commission, chaired by North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong Il.

Original reporting by JW Noh for RFA's Korean service. Acting service director: Francis Huh. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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