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Turning North Korea’s Trash Into Treasure

Story and Photo by The Associated Press

When waves wash trash onto the shores of front-line South Korean islands, Kang Dong Wan can often be found hunting for what he calls his “treasure” — rubbish from North Korea that provides a peek into a place off-limits to most outsiders.

“This can be very important material, because we can learn what products are manufactured in North Korea and what goods people use there,” said Kang, a professor at South Korea’s Dong-A University.

He was forced to turn to the delicate information-gathering method because COVID-19 has made it much harder for outsiders to find out what’s going on inside North Korea, one of the world’s most cloistered nations even without pandemic border closures.

The variety, amount and increasing sophistication of the trash, he believes, confirms North Korean state media reports that leader Kim Jong Un is pushing for the production of various consumer goods and a bigger industrial-design sector to meet people’s demands and improve their livelihoods. Kim, despite his authoritarian rule, cannot ignore the tastes of consumers who now buy products at capitalist-style markets because the country’s socialist public rationing system is broken, and its economic woes have worsened during the pandemic.

“Current North Korean residents are a generation of people who’ve come to realize what the market and economy are. Kim can’t win their support if he only suppresses and controls them while sticking to a nuclear development program,” Kang said. “He needs to show there are some changes in his era.”

Before the pandemic, Kang regularly visited Chinese border towns to meet North Koreans living there. He also bought North Korean products and photographed North Korean villages across the river border. He can’t go anymore, however, because China’s antivirus restrictions limit foreign travelers.

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

Kang said he was amazed to see dozens of colorful packaging materials for goods such as seasonings, ice cream bars, snack cakes, and milk and yogurt products. Many have graphic elements, cartoon characters and a variety of fonts. Some seem out of date by Western standards and are apparent copies of South Korean and Japanese designs.

Other experts study the diversity of goods and packaging designs in North Korea through state media broadcasts and publications, but Kang’s trash collection allows a more thorough analysis, said Ahn Kyung-su, head of a website focusing on health issues in North Korea.

Kang’s work also opens a fascinating window. Ingredient information on some juice pouches, for instance, shows North Korea uses tree leaves as a sugar substitute. Kang suspects that’s because of a lack of sugar and sugar-processing equipment.

He said the discovery of more than 30 kinds of artificial flavor enhancer packets could mean that North Korean households cannot afford more expensive natural ingredients such as meat and fish for soups and stews. Many South Koreans have stopped using artificial enhancers over health concerns.

Plastic bags for detergents have phrases such as “the friend of housewives” or “accommodating women.” Because the assumption is that only women do such work, it could reflect their low status in male-dominated North Korean society.

Some wrappers display exaggerated claims. One says that a walnut-flavored snack cake is a better source of protein than meat. Another says that collagen ice cream makes children grow taller and enhances skin elasticity. And yet another claims that a snack cake made with a certain kind of microalgae prevents diabetes, heart disease and aging.

Kang said his trash collection is 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.

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