Open Zones Sure to Clash with Controls

The North Korean security and intelligence services will have to step up civilian controls in those urban areas slated for development into “open zones” under a plan reported exclusively by Daily NK on October 1st. If the domestic security forces fail to do so, the modest attempt at opening could threaten regime stability. Yet relatively free communications are one of the key requirements for the zones to succeed.

A similar situation could be seen at Rasun. When the North Hamkyung Province city was originally designated as a Special Economic Zone back in 1991, and again when it was revived in January 2010, revisions to legal codes were designed to ensure a favorable business environment. But at the same time, strict civilian controls were implemented to counter the potential side effects of the modest opening.

The goal at Rasun was to forestall changes in civilian awareness that could emerge as a result of more frequent contact with outsiders and information from beyond North Korea’s borders. Similarly, Chosun Workers’ Party cadres oversee and impose limits on contacts between South Korean managers and technical staff and North Korean laborers in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. It can be assumed that the authorities would seek to implement labor management techniques of a similar nature in the proposed “open zones.”

The kinds of control that would be needed in the proposed zones include wiretapping and hi-tech ultramagnetic wave detectors of the kind in use along the Sino-North Korean border today. Equally, persons thought appropriate for positions in the new zones would inevitably face a thorough certification process, involving family background, social status, and ideological stability checks.

However, it is these kinds of checks, in particular over means of communication, which could limit the ability of the open zones to grow successfully and power any meaningful economic growth. A formerly high-ranking defector told Daily NK: “The North Koreans were aware that people in Rasun could find out about the actual state of the world via contact with foreigners, so they strengthened their grip on the people. If the North believes it cannot completely control the use of phones and the Internet in these areas, then they will not take active steps toward opening.”

“The North will probably have to begin practical preparation for restrictions straight away,” director of Free North Korea Radio and former Daily NK reporter Lee Seok Young agreed. “Even if there are loud calls for ‘freedom of communication’ from foreign investors, they will find it difficult to abandon their controls no matter how urgently economic reform is needed.”