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North Korean threats cut close to homeTell North Platte what you think
Courtesy Photo­Image
Walt Fick, at right, discusses procedures with Yoo Dong Ok, chairman of Daewha Fuel Pump Iindusties of South Korea, a Baldwin affiliate.
Courtesy Nebraska Farm Bureau
Replicas of country Korean buildings, complete with a thatched roof, at the heritage museum at Kaesong.
Courtesy Photo­Image
Korean baffle press operator

A month ago, I looked up at the TV screen to see a missile rising from a launch pad in North Korea.

It wasn’t a live action shot but it dramatized the threats from North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-Un, who was blustering about a nuclear attack.

The world was in a simmering state of alarm. Chuck Hagel, the U.S. secretary of defense who was born in North Platte, said he was taking the situation seriously.

Since then, Jong-Un’s rumblings and invective have generally disappeared from newscasts, replaced by reports of Boston bombings, tornados and accused man-killer Jodi Arias.

A few days later, I learned a lot more about Korea from someone who was there. Someone I knew well. Someone from central Nebraska.

On an Easter vacation trip, my brother-in-law Walt Fick told me about his trip a year ago to the manufacturing center of Kaesong in North Korea.

Walt is an engineer at Baldwin Filters in Kearney.

As we traveled together, news of North Korea tinged the airwaves. Altought the militant little nation threatened attacks, it's only attacks have been industrial.

Before I got a chance to bring up North Korea on the first morning of the trip, Walt said somberly to his wife, "They are closing Kaesong."

Walt, an engineer with Baldwin Filters in Kearney, had been there.

The industrial complex of Kaesong opened in 2004 as a joint effort of North and South Korea. It was symbolically built in Kaesong, a city of 340,000, because that was the home of the last joint king to govern the two Koreas.

Thanks to Kim Jong-Un, the complex officially closed in early April, and reopening is not foreseeable. The last seven South Korean workers left the complex on May 3 - cutting the final channel of communication between the two Koreas.

Kaesong is in a mountain valley, six miles across the border and about an hour's drive from the South Korean capital of Seoul. It was a bright spot in the economy, employing about 53,000 workers, most from North Korea, who were paid about $160 per month, about one-fifth of the South Korean minimum wage but considerably more than they receive in North Korea, according to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

Nearly all Kaesong factories are owned by South Korean companies, including a company affiliated with Baldwin Filters, where Walt works. The South Korean factory subcontracted some of its work to Kaesong, where North Korean workers made parts for Baldwin’s engine filters.

A variety of other products for more than 100 companies were made in Kaesong - light fixtures, bearings, shoes, clothes, etc. -- and distributed around the world.

To build Kaesong, the SK companies invested heavily for years and generally did not see a profit until 2011, according to The Institute for Far Eastern Studies.

North and South Korea have squabbled at times over wages and taxes at Kaesong. In 2009, the North successfully bargained for a wage increase. A year ago, some of the 123 companies that operate factories in Kaesong suddenly received tax collection notices from North Korea, in violation of an initial agreement that required any changes in operating policies at Kaesong to be negotiated between the North and the South.

Meanwhile, a year or so ago, Baldwin was beset by faulty parts from Kaesong. The Kearney staff tried to address the issues by emails and telephone but problems persisted. Finally, Walt and two others from the Kearney factory went there personally.

Their team spent a day in South Korea, then headed north. Walt noticed differences as soon as he crossed the North Korean border. There were fewer trees. The shacks and houses were in poor condition. Thousands of buses brought impoverished North Korean workers to Kaesong each day from a wide area.

The modern Kaesong complex is also a cultural center with architectural features and a museum. When Walt arrived, he took a tour. North Korean students and the Kaesong staff talked about the history of the complex and the vision for future cooperation between the countries.

The tour also included a drive-through of the developing town, which is built with the possibility of expanding 10 times. There are factories, houses, daycares, parks and employee training centers. Additionally, at the evening meal, North Korean students served, danced, and sang – sharing their culture.

On the job, Walt found the North Koreans helpful and courteous. Everyone he worked with spoke English. They were regimented but efficient.

The Baldwin delegation looked at the manufacturing process, identified some aspects that were problematic, and ran some tests.

It was a good experience, if a little delicate.

"We were there to be critical," Walt said. "We were asking workers to do some things they hadn't been doing."

The North Korean workplace is more hierarchical than the U.S., so the Baldwin team had to be sure to go through the proper channels, but they remained pleasant and matter-of-fact about the issues they found and the corrections needed.

The team located the problems and told the North Koreans about them, and the response was immediate. New procedures were adopted the next day.

With those issues resolved, the Baldwin team returned to the plant in South Korea for several days work, and then home. There had been no more problems.

Walt recalls many aspects of his trip - the heavily patrolled border, giant Korean radishes the size of apples, fish head soup in North Korea, as well as a Korean culture of service. Koreans always pour each other's drinks at meals. They are proud to be helpful.

Like most of us, Walt hopes that the Kaesong industrial park opens soon. It broke down fears and suspicions. It was not only a symbol of cooperation, but an example of things people can do when they work together despite differences.

Hopefully, Kim Jong-Un will mature and the communication, cultural sharing, positive work skills and cohesion can again fulfill the vision of Kaesong.

Today, Baldwin is working with the South Korean company, Daewha Fuel Pump Iindusties, to create replacement tools so the finished filters can continue to be produced in Korea, and exercising their Yankee ingenuity by exploring options as needed.

First pubished May 8 in the Bulletin's print edition.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 5/22/2013
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