Scholar uses trash as treasure to study life in North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — When the waves wash trash onto the seashores of front-line South Korean islands, Kang Dong Wan can usually be discovered attempting to find what he calls his “treasure” — garbage from North Korea that gives a peek into a spot that’s shut down 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,” Kang, 48, a professor at South Korea’s Dong-A University, advised The Associated Press in a current interview.

He was pressured to flip to the fragile information-gathering technique as a result of COVID-19 has made it a lot tougher for outsiders to discover out what’s occurring inside North Korea, one of many world’s most cloistered nations even with out pandemic border closures.

The selection, quantity and rising sophistication of the trash, he believes, confirms North Korean state media reviews that chief Kim Jong Un is pushing for the manufacturing of assorted sorts of shopper items and an even bigger industrial design sector to meet the calls for of his folks and enhance their livelihoods.

Kang Dong Wan, 48, a professor at South Korea's Dong-A University, speaks with trash from North Korea during an interview in Seoul, South Korea on April 4, 2022.
Kang Dong Wan, 48, a professor at South Korea’s Dong-A University, speaks with trash from North Korea throughout an interview in Seoul, South Korea on April 4, 2022.

Kim, regardless of his authoritarian rule, can’t ignore the tastes of shoppers who now purchase merchandise at capitalist-style markets as a result of the nation’s socialist public rationing system is damaged and its financial woes have worsened throughout 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 stated. “He needs to show there are some changes in his era.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kang usually visited Chinese border cities to meet North Koreans staying there. He additionally purchased North Korean merchandise and photographed North Korean villages throughout the river border. He can’t go there anymore, nevertheless, as a result of China’s anti-virus restrictions restrict overseas vacationers.

Since September 2020, Kang has visited 5 South Korean border islands off the nation’s west coast and picked up about 2,000 items of North Korean trash together with snack baggage, juice pouches, sweet wrappers and drink bottles.

Kang stated he was amazed to see dozens of various varieties of colourful packaging supplies, every for sure merchandise like seasonings, ice cream bars, snack truffles and milk and yogurt merchandise. Many carry quite a lot of graphic parts, cartoon characters and lettering fonts. Some nonetheless can appear old-fashioned by Western requirements and are obvious copycats of South Korean and Japanese designs.

Kang Dong Wan, 48, a professor at South Korea's Dong-A University, holds trash from North Korea during an interview in Seoul, South Korea on April 4, 2022.
Wan holds trash from North Korea throughout an interview in Seoul, South Korea.

Kang not too long ago revealed a e book based mostly on his work titled “Picking up North Korean Trash on the Five West Sea Islands.” He stated he’s now additionally began to scour japanese South Korean front-line seashores.

Other consultants study the range of products and packaging designs in North Korea by way of state media broadcasts and publications, however Kang’s trash assortment permits a extra thorough evaluation, stated Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a web site specializing in well being points in North Korea.

Kang’s work additionally opens up a captivating window into North Korea.

Ingredient info on some juice pouches, as an example, exhibits North Korea uses tree leaves as a sugar substitute. Kang suspects that’s due to an absence of sugar and sugar-processing tools.

He stated the invention of greater than 30 sorts of synthetic taste enhancer packets might imply that North Korean households can’t afford dearer pure substances like meat and fish to cook dinner Korean soups and stews. Many South Koreans have stopped utilizing them at dwelling over well being issues.

Kang Dong Wan, 48, a professor at South Korea's Dong-A University, displays trash from North Korea during an interview in Seoul, South Korea on April 4, 2022.
Wan shows trash from North Korea throughout an interview in Seoul, South Korea on April 4, 2022.

Plastic baggage for detergents have phrases like “the friend of housewives” or “accommodating women.” Because the idea is that solely ladies do such work, it might be a mirrored image of the low standing of girls in male-dominated North Korean society.

Some wrappers show extraordinarily exaggerated claims. One says {that a} walnut-flavored snack cake is a greater supply of protein than meat. Another says that collagen ice cream makes kids develop taller and enhances pores and skin elasticity. And yet one more claims {that a} snack cake made with a sure form of microalgae prevents diabetes, coronary heart illness and growing older.

Kang has been unable to confirm the standard of former contents inside his trash.

North Korean snacks and cookies have typically develop into a lot softer and tastier in current years, although their high quality nonetheless lags behind that of South Korea’s internationally aggressive merchandise, in accordance to Jeon Young-sun, a analysis professor at Seoul’s Konkuk University.

Noh Hyun-jeong, a North Korean defector, stated she was “ecstatic” in regards to the South Korean bread and truffles that she ate after her arrival right here in 2007. She stated the confectionaries and candies she had in the North had been usually bitter and “as hard as a rock.”

Kang Dong Wan, 48, a professor at South Korea's Dong-A University, picks up trash from North Korea on beach of Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea on Dec. 21, 2021.
Wan picks up trash from North Korea on seashore of Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea.

Kang Mi-Jin, one other defector who runs a company analyzing North Korea’s financial system, stated that when she had South Koreans strive new North Korean cookies and candies in blind style assessments, they thought they had been South Korean. But Ahn, the web site head, stated the North Korean cookie he obtained in 2019 was “tasteless.”

Kang stated his trash assortment is an try to higher perceive the North Korean folks and study how to bridge the hole between the divided Koreas in the occasion of future unification.

In 2019, Kang stated he was denied entry at Shanghai’s airport, apparently due to his earlier, principally unauthorized work alongside the China-North Korea border. During a earlier interval of inter-Korean detente that ended in 2008, Kang stated he visited North Korea greater than 10 occasions however might solely purchase restricted items that didn’t assist him perceive the nation.

Picking up trash on the islands, about 4-20 kilometers (2.5-12 miles) from North Korean territory, is a tricky job. He most frequently visits Yeonpyeong, an island shelled by North Korea in an assault that killed 4 South Koreans in 2010.

On some journeys, South Korean marines quizzed Kang as a result of residents who noticed him accumulating trash thought he was doing one thing suspicious. He was generally stranded when ferry companies had been canceled due to unhealthy climate. Kang stated he often cried in frustration on the seashore when he failed to discover North Korean trash or acquired calls from acquaintances jeering or doubting his work.

“But I was heartened after collecting more and more trash … and I determined that I must find out how many goods are in a country where we can’t go and what we can find from that trash,” Kang stated. “When the wind blew and the waves ran high, something always washed ashore and I was so happy because I could find something new.”

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