Academic uses trash as treasure to study life in North Korea

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SEOUL, South Korea — When waves wash up trash on the beaches of South Korean islands, Kang Dong Wan can often be found searching for what he calls his “treasure”: North Korean trash that provides a look at a place that is closed to most outsiders.

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

He was forced to resort to the delicate method of information gathering because COVID-19 has made it that 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.

He believes the variety, quantity and increasing sophistication of the garbage confirm North Korean state media reports that leader Kim Jong Un is pushing the production of various types of consumer goods and an industrial design sector. larger 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 products in capitalist-style markets because the country’s socialist public rationing system is broken and its economic problems have worsened during the pandemic.

“The current residents of North Korea are a generation of people who have realized what the market and the economy are. Kim cannot win his support if he just suppresses and controls them while he sticks to a nuclear development program,” Kang said. “He needs to show that there are some changes in his era.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kang regularly visited Chinese border cities 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 because 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 garbage from North Korea, including snack bags, juice bags, candy wrappers and drink bottles. .

Kang said he was surprised to see dozens of different types of colorful packaging materials, each for certain products like condiments, ice cream bars, cakes, and milk and yogurt products. Many carry a variety of graphic elements, cartoon characters, and letter fonts. Some may still look outdated by Western standards and are apparent knock-offs of South Korean and Japanese designs.

Kang recently published a book based on his work titled “Collecting North Korea’s Garbage in the Five Islands of the West Sea.” He said that now she too has started touring the seafront beaches of 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 a more comprehensive analysis, said Ahn Kyung-su, director of DPRKHEALTH.ORG. , a website that focuses on health issues in the North. Korea.

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

Ingredient information on some juice bags, for example, shows that North Korea uses tree leaves as a substitute for sugar. Kang suspects it is due to 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 such as meat and fish to cook Korean soups and stews. Many South Koreans have stopped using them at home due to health problems.

Plastic bags for detergents have phrases like “the friend of housewives” or “accommodating woman”. Because only women are supposed to do such work, it could be a reflection of the low status of women in the male-dominated North Korean society.

Some packaging shows wildly exaggerated claims. One says that a nutty-flavored cupcake is a better source of protein than meat. Another says that collagen ice cream makes children grow taller and improves skin elasticity. And another claims that a cake made with a certain type of microalgae prevents diabetes, heart disease and aging.

Kang has not been able to verify the quality of the previous contents within his trash.

North Korean snacks and cookies have become much softer and tastier in recent years, though their quality still falls short of internationally competitive products from South Korea, according to Jeon Young-sun, a professor research at Konkuk University in Seoul.

Noh Hyun-jeong, a North Korean defector, said she was “ecstatic” with the South Korean bread and cakes she ate after her arrival here in 2007. She said the sweets and sweets she had in the North at They were often bitter and “hard as a rock.”

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

Kang said his garbage 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.

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

Picking up garbage on the islands, some 4-20 kilometers (2.5-12 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 residents who saw him picking up trash thought he was doing something suspicious. He was sometimes stranded when ferry services were canceled due to bad weather. Kang said he would occasionally cry in frustration on the beach when he couldn’t find any North Korean trash or received calls from acquaintances who made fun of or doubted his work.

“But I got fired up after collecting more and more garbage…and decided I should find out how many goods are there in a country we can’t go to and what we can find from that garbage,” Kang said. “When the wind was blowing and the waves were high, something always came ashore and I was very happy because I could find something new.”

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