North Korea

South Korean-branded rice cookers in Pyongyang show Kaesong complex still functioning


The pricey cookers were made at the complex shuttered since 2016, in violation of agreement with Seoul

South Korean-branded rice cookers in Pyongyang show Kaesong complex still functioning

The Kaesong Industrial Complex is seen across the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea, in 2013.

Sleek, modern rice cookers bearing the South Korean brand Cuckoo sell at premium prices in North Korean department stores, but they have not been illegally smuggled into the country, nor are they Chinese-made fakes.

They were manufactured in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, an inter-Korean manufacturing zone that was supposed to have been shuttered since 2016, a source in Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

The rice cookers on sale in Pyongyang are evidence that North Korea is running the factories in the Kaesong complex in direct violation of inter-Korean agreements, including those that protect the rights and interests of South Korean investors.

“The electric rice cooker is produced using the equipment and raw materials that Cuckoo Electronics Company left in the Kaesong Industrial Complex,” the source said. “The production manpower was provided by the residents of Kaesong who worked for Cuckoo when the complex was in operation.”

The factories, located in the city of Kaesong, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the demilitarized zone, opened in 2004 during the height of the Sunshine Policy era of cooperation between Seoul and Pyongyang. 

By combining South Korean capital and industrial technology with cheap North Korean labor, the idea was meant to expose the merits of democracy to the North Korean people.

The complex briefly closed in 2013 during a period of high tension between the Koreas and was completely halted in 2016 in response to a North Korean missile test, prompting South Korean staff to withdraw.

But the factories remained intact, and stores of raw materials were left behind.

In fact, the complex has been churning out Cuckoo rice cookers for several years now, the source said.

Those Kaesong-made rice cookers in the Pyongyang Department Store cost 410,000 won, or U.S.$50, for the six-cup version, and 656,000 won, or $80, for the 10-cup version. Although cheaper than if they were sold in South Korea, those prices are prohibitively expensive in the North, where average monthly salaries for government-assigned jobs  amount to less than $1. 

Their hefty price tags mean that only the wealthiest of North Koreans can afford to buy them.

Payback for sanctions

For the first few years after the closure of the complex in 2016, the factories and materials lay idle. 

But later Pyongyang began selling finished products left in Kaesong in response to international nuclear sanctions going into effect that year, crippling North Korea’s ability to generate foreign currency, a source in the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA on condition of anonymity for safety.

The best-selling item, both sources said, has been the Cuckoo rice cooker. These cookers were among products smuggled into China by a company affiliated with the North Korean military in 2018.

The onset of the coronavirus resulted in North Korea being cut off completely from the rest of the world as Pyongyang and Beijing suspended all trade and closed the Sino-Korean border. 

“As the border was blocked due to the coronavirus crisis and economic difficulties began, the Central Committee allowed the use of production facilities, buses, and raw materials remaining in the Kaesong Industrial Complex,” the North Pyongan source said. 

On April 11, South Korea’s Unification Minister Kwon Young-se said in a statement that North Korea is infringing on property rights by using facilities of South Korean companies in the Kaesong Industrial Complex without permission, despite several warnings from the South Korean government. It was the first time a sitting minister directly condemned North Korea since 2013.

The Kaesong complex can only be restarted after UN and U.S. sanctions are lifted – specifically UN Security Council Resolution 2270, adopted in March 2016 in response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, and U.S. sanctions against North Korea that restrict trade between the two Koreas, except for humanitarian aid items such as food.

But until then, the Cuckoo rice cooker will likely continue to be illegally made, as it remains a must-have item.

“Electric rice cookers are especially in high demand as they are used in every home in Pyongyang,” the North Pyongan source said.

 Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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