Academic uses trash as treasure to study life in North Korea

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — When the waves wash up trash on the beaches of South Korea’s frontline islands, Kang Dong Wan can often be found searching for what he calls his “treasure” — trash from North Korea that give a glimpse of a place closed to most foreigners.

“It can be a very important material because we can know what products are made in North Korea and what goods people use there,” Kang, 48, a professor at South Korea’s Dong-A University, told the Associated Press in a recent interview.

He’s been forced to turn to the tricky method of news gathering as COVID-19 has made it much harder for outsiders to find out what’s going on in North Korea, one of the world’s most cloistered nations, even without pandemic border closures.

The variety, quantity and growing sophistication of waste, he said, confirms North Korean state media reports that leader Kim Jong Un is pushing for the production of various types of consumer goods and a larger sector. of industrial design to meet the demands of its people and improve their livelihoods.


Kim, despite his authoritarian rule, cannot ignore the tastes of consumers who now buy goods in capitalist-style markets because the country’s socialist public rationing system has broken down and its economic difficulties have worsened during the pandemic.

“Current North Korean residents are a generation of people who have understood the market and the economy. Kim cannot win their support if he just suppresses and controls them while sticking to a nuclear development program,” Kang said. “He has to show that there are changes in his time.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kang regularly traveled to Chinese border towns to meet with North Koreans staying there. He also bought North Korean products and photographed North Korean villages across the river border. However, he can no longer go there, as China’s anti-virus restrictions limit foreign travellers.

Since September 2020, Kang has visited five South Korean border islands off the country’s west coast and collected around 2,000 pieces of North Korean trash, including snack bags, juice pouches, candy wrappers and bottles. of drink.

Kang said he was amazed to see dozens of different types of colorful packaging materials, each for certain products like seasonings, ice cream bars, cupcakes, and milk and yogurt products. Many feature a variety of graphic elements, cartoon characters, and fonts. Some may still look outdated by Western standards and are apparently imitators of South Korean and Japanese designs.

Kang recently published a book based on his work titled “Collecting North Korean Trash on the Five West Sea Islands.” He said he has also started hitting the frontline beaches in eastern South Korea.

Other experts study the diversity of products and packaging designs in North Korea through state media broadcasts and publications, but Kang’s garbage collection allows for deeper analysis, said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focused on health issues in North Korea. Korea.

Kang’s work also opens a fascinating window on North Korea.

The ingredient information on some juice packets, for example, shows that North Korea uses tree leaves as a sugar substitute. Kang suspects it’s because of a lack of sugar and sugar processing equipment.

He said the discovery of more than 30 types of artificial flavor enhancer packets could mean that North Korean households cannot afford more expensive natural ingredients like meat and fish to cook soups and stews. Koreans. Many South Koreans have stopped using them at home for health reasons.

Plastic detergent bags have phrases like “housewives friend” or “accommodating women”. Because the assumption is that only women do such work, it could be a reflection of the lower status of women in North Korea’s male-dominated society.

Some packaging displays extremely exaggerated claims. It is said that a nutty cake is a better source of protein than meat. Another says that collagen ice cream makes children grow taller and improves skin elasticity. And yet another claims that a cake made from a certain type of microalgae prevents diabetes, heart disease and aging.

Kang was unable to verify the quality of the old content in his trash.

According to Jeon Young-sun, a research professor at Konkuk University in Seoul, North Korean snacks and cookies have generally become much sweeter and tastier in recent years, although their quality remains lower than that of South Korean products. internationally competitive.

Noh Hyun-jeong, a North Korean defector, said she was “ecstatic” about the South Korean bread and cakes she ate after arriving here in 2007. She said the sweets and candies she had in the North were often bitter and “like hard as a rock.”

Kang Mi-Jin, another defector who runs a company analyzing North Korea’s economy, said that when she asked South Koreans to try new North Korean cookies and sweets in tests of blind taste they thought they were South Korean. But Ahn, the website manager, said the North Korean cookie he got in 2019 was “tasteless”.

Kang said his trash collection was an attempt to better understand the North Korean people and study how to bridge the gap between the divided Koreas in the event of future unification.

In 2019, Kang said he was refused entry to Shanghai airport, apparently because of his previous, mostly unauthorized work along the China-Korea border. North. During a previous period of inter-Korean détente that ended in 2008, Kang said he visited North Korea more than 10 times but was only able to purchase limited goods. which did not help him to understand the country.

Picking up trash on the islands, about 4 to 20 kilometers (2.5 to 12 miles) from North Korean territory, is hard work. He most often visits Yeonpyeong, an island bombed by North Korea in an attack that killed four South Koreans in 2010.

On some trips, South Korean marines questioned Kang because locals who saw him picking up trash thought he was doing something suspicious. It was sometimes blocked when ferry services were canceled due to bad weather. Kang said he sometimes cried in frustration on the beach when he couldn’t find North Korean trash or received calls from acquaintances mocking or doubting his job.

“But I’ve been comforted after collecting more and more trash…and decided I need to know how much goods are in a country we can’t go to and what we can find in that trash” , Kang said. “When the wind was blowing and the waves were high, something always washed up on the shore and I was so happy because I could find something new.”

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