Scholar makes use of trash as treasure to check 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 found searching for what he calls his “treasure” — rubbish from North Korea that offers a peek right into a spot that’s shut all the best way all the way down to most outsiders.

“This can be essential supplies because of we are going to research what merchandise are manufactured in North Korea and what objects people use there,” Kang, 48, a professor at South Korea’s Dong-A Faculty, instructed The Associated Press in a contemporary interview.

He was pressured to indicate to the delicate information-gathering methodology because of COVID-19 has made it so much harder for outsiders to go looking out out what’s occurring inside North Korea, one in every of many world’s most cloistered nations even with out pandemic border closures.

The vary, amount and rising sophistication of the trash, he believes, confirms North Korean state media tales that chief Kim Jong Un is pushing for the manufacturing of various types of purchaser objects and a a lot larger industrial design sector to meet the requires of his people and improve their livelihoods.

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

Kim, no matter his authoritarian rule, cannot ignore the tastes of customers who now buy merchandise at capitalist-style markets because of the nation’s socialist public rationing system is broken and its monetary woes have worsened in the midst of the pandemic.

“Current North Korean residents are a period of those that’ve come to understand what the market and monetary system are. Kim can’t win their help if he solely suppresses and controls them whereas sticking to a nuclear enchancment program,” Kang said. “He desires to level on the market are some modifications in his interval.”

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Sooner than the COVID-19 pandemic, Kang incessantly visited Chinese language language border cities to meet North Koreans staying there. He moreover bought North Korean merchandise and photographed North Korean villages all through the river border. He can’t go there anymore, nonetheless, because of China’s anti-virus restrictions limit worldwide vacationers.

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

Kang said he was amazed to see dozens of assorted sorts of vibrant packaging provides, each for positive merchandise like seasonings, ice cream bars, snack muffins and milk and yogurt merchandise. Many carry numerous graphic elements, cartoon characters and lettering fonts. Some nonetheless can seem old style by Western necessities and are apparent 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 all through an interview in Seoul, South Korea.

Kang simply currently revealed a e-book based mostly totally on his work titled “Deciding on up North Korean Trash on the 5 West Sea Islands.” He said he’s now moreover started to scour jap South Korean front-line seashores.

Completely different consultants analysis the number of merchandise and packaging designs in North Korea via state media broadcasts and publications, nonetheless Kang’s trash assortment permits a additional thorough analysis, said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, an web web site specializing in properly being factors in North Korea.

Kang’s work moreover opens up an attention-grabbing window into North Korea.

Ingredient information on some juice pouches, for instance, reveals North Korea makes use of tree leaves as a sugar substitute. Kang suspects that’s attributable to an absence of sugar and sugar-processing instruments.

He said the invention of larger than 30 types of artificial style enhancer packets might indicate that North Korean households cannot afford costlier pure substances like meat and fish to prepare dinner dinner Korean soups and stews. Many South Koreans have stopped using them at dwelling over properly being points.

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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 reveals trash from North Korea all through an interview in Seoul, South Korea on April 4, 2022.

Plastic baggage for detergents have phrases like “the pal of housewives” or “accommodating women.” Because of the assumption is that solely women do such work, it may probably be a reflection of the low standing of women in male-dominated North Korean society.

Some wrappers present terribly exaggerated claims. One says {{that a}} walnut-flavored snack cake is a larger provide of protein than meat. One different says that collagen ice cream makes kids develop taller and enhances pores and pores and skin elasticity. And yet one more claims {{that a}} snack cake made with a positive kind of microalgae prevents diabetes, coronary coronary heart sickness and ageing.

Kang has been unable to substantiate the usual of former contents inside his trash.

North Korean snacks and cookies have normally turn into so much softer and tastier in latest occasions, though their top quality nonetheless lags behind that of South Korea’s internationally aggressive merchandise, in response to Jeon Youthful-sun, a evaluation professor at Seoul’s Konkuk Faculty.

Noh Hyun-jeong, a North Korean defector, said she was “ecstatic” regarding the South Korean bread and muffins that she ate after her arrival proper right here in 2007. She said the confectionaries and candies she had throughout the North have been usually bitter and “as laborious 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 seaside of Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea.

Kang Mi-Jin, one different defector who runs a corporation analyzing North Korea’s monetary system, said that when she had South Koreans try new North Korean cookies and candies in blind type assessments, they thought they’ve been South Korean. Nevertheless Ahn, the website online head, said the North Korean cookie he obtained in 2019 was “tasteless.”

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Kang said his trash assortment is an attempt to greater understand the North Korean people and analysis how one can bridge the opening between the divided Koreas throughout the event of future unification.

In 2019, Kang said he was denied entry at Shanghai’s airport, apparently attributable to his earlier, principally unauthorized work alongside the China-North Korea border. All through a earlier interval of inter-Korean detente that resulted in 2008, Kang said he visited North Korea larger than 10 cases nonetheless might solely buy restricted objects that didn’t help him understand the nation.

Deciding on up trash on the islands, about 4-20 kilometers (2.5-12 miles) from North Korean territory, is a difficult job. He most incessantly 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 because of residents who observed him gathering trash thought he was doing one factor suspicious. He was typically stranded when ferry suppliers have been canceled attributable to unhealthy local weather. Kang said he typically cried in frustration on the seaside when he failed to go looking out North Korean trash or obtained calls from acquaintances jeering or doubting his work.

“Nevertheless I was heartened after gathering more and more extra trash … and I made up my thoughts that I must study what number of objects are in a country the place we are going to’t go and what we are going to uncover from that trash,” Kang said. “When the wind blew and the waves ran extreme, one factor always washed ashore and I was so happy because of I’ll uncover one factor new.”