North Korea is secretly running 19 clothing factories in the Kaesong industrial zone, once a symbol of cooperation between the two halves of the divided Korean peninsula that was shuttered last year as Pyongyang ramped up its missile and nuclear programs, sources in China told RFA’s Korean Service.
Kaesong was closed in February 2016 after North Korea ordered all South Koreans out of the complex, seized South Korean assets there, and declared the area under military control.
The move came a day after South Korea announced it was pulling out of Kaesong in retaliation for North Korean nuclear and long-range missile tests earlier in the year.
“North Korea is secretly operating 19 clothing factories in Kaesong Industrial Complex without informing South Korea,” a source in China involved in trade with North Korea told RFA.
“Clothing factories in Kaesong Industrial Complex produce clothes for the domestic market but majority of their workload includes processing orders made from China,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The trader said that North Korea addressed a lack of electricity at Kaesong by diverting some power from the munitions sector.
“However, the clothing factories do not require much electricity since they only need some electricity to run sewing machines,” the source said.
The source added that with UN and other international sanctions imposed on North Korea over its repeated missile and nuclear tests, “the 19 clothing factories that are secretly operating will experience difficulties getting orders.”
A second source familiar with North Korean trade and manufacturing said he was unsure when exactly the North started making textiles at Kaesong, “but it is definitely more than six months since it began running.”
Commuter buses taking workers into the plant near North Korea’s border with South Korea were running, the second source said, but authorities were taking extra steps to maintain security and secrecy.
“The inside of the factory is invisible from outside. All the lights from inside of the factories are securely blocked by curtains,” said the second source.
Two North Korean propaganda outlets quoted by Reuters news agency from Seoul indirectly and possibly inadvertently confirmed the reported use of the factories, which South Korea said had violated its property rights by using the equipment.
"They do not even see our proud workers laboring vigorously working in the Kaesong industrial complex," North Korea's propaganda web site Meari was quoted by Reuters as saying on Friday.
The agency quoted the Uriminzokkiri propaganda site as saying "it is nobody's business what we do in an industrial complex where our nation's sovereignty is exercised.”
It was not immediately clear what South Korea could do about the latest action by North Korea, which has broken most if not all previous inter-Korean economic and political agreements without facing serious consequences.
In December, sources familiar with Kaesong told RFA that South Korean cookware seized illegally by North Korean authorities after the joint industrial park was closed was seen on sale in large quantities in Chinese cities near the North Korean border.
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.