Scholar makes use of trash as treasure to review life in North Korea

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — When the waves wash trash onto the seashores of front-line South Korean islands, Kang Dong Wan can typically be discovered attempting to find what he calls his “treasure” — garbage from North Korea that gives a peek into a spot that’s shut right down to most outsiders.

“This may be crucial materials as a result of we will study what merchandise are manufactured in North Korea and what items individuals use there,” Kang, 48, a professor at South Korea’s Dong-A College, instructed The Related Press in a latest interview.

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

The variability, quantity and rising sophistication of the trash, he believes, confirms North Korean state media stories that chief Kim Jong Un is pushing for the manufacturing of assorted sorts of shopper items and a much bigger industrial design sector to fulfill the calls for of his individuals and enhance their livelihoods.

Kim, regardless of his authoritarian rule, can not 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 through the pandemic.

“Present North Korean residents are a era of people that’ve come to comprehend what the market and economic system are. Kim can’t win their help if he solely suppresses and controls them whereas sticking to a nuclear growth program,” Kang mentioned. “He wants to point out there are some modifications in his period.”

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Earlier than the COVID-19 pandemic, Kang frequently visited Chinese language border cities to fulfill 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 international 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 luggage, juice pouches, sweet wrappers and drink bottles.

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 Some nonetheless can appear outdated by Western requirements and are obvious copycats of South Korean and Japanese designs.

Kang not too long ago revealed a guide based mostly on his work titled “Choosing up North Korean Trash on the 5 West Sea Islands.” He mentioned he’s now additionally began to scour japanese South Korean front-line seashores.

Different consultants examine the variety of products and packaging designs in North Korea via state media broadcasts and publications, however Kang’s trash assortment permits a extra thorough evaluation, mentioned Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, an internet site specializing in well being points in North Korea.

Kang’s work additionally opens up an enchanting window into North Korea.

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

He mentioned the invention of greater than 30 sorts of synthetic taste enhancer packets may imply that North Korean households can not afford dearer pure components like meat and fish to prepare dinner Korean soups and stews. Many South Koreans have stopped utilizing them at dwelling over well being issues.

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Plastic luggage for detergents have phrases like “the buddy of housewives” or “accommodating girls.” As a result of the idea is that solely girls do such work, it might be a mirrored image of the low standing of ladies 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. One other says that collagen ice cream makes youngsters develop taller and enhances pores and skin elasticity. And yet one more claims {that a} snack cake made with a sure sort of microalgae prevents diabetes, coronary heart illness and growing old.

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

North Korean snacks and cookies have usually grow to be a lot softer and tastier lately, although their high quality nonetheless lags behind that of South Korea’s internationally aggressive merchandise, in line with Jeon Younger-sun, a analysis professor at Seoul’s Konkuk College.

Noh Hyun-jeong, a North Korean defector, mentioned she was “ecstatic” concerning the South Korean bread and desserts that she ate after her arrival right here in 2007. She mentioned the confectionaries and candies she had within the North have been typically bitter and “as laborious as a rock.”

Kang Mi-Jin, one other defector who runs an organization analyzing North Korea’s economic system, mentioned that when she had South Koreans attempt new North Korean cookies and candies in blind style checks, they thought they have been South Korean. However Ahn, the web site head, mentioned the North Korean cookie he obtained in 2019 was “tasteless.”

Kang mentioned his trash assortment is an try to higher perceive the North Korean individuals and examine easy methods to bridge the hole between the divided Koreas within the occasion of future unification.

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

Choosing up trash on the islands, about 4-20 kilometers (2.5-12 miles) from North Korean territory, is a troublesome 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 typically stranded when ferry providers have been canceled due to dangerous climate. Kang mentioned he sometimes cried in frustration on the seaside when he failed to search out North Korean trash or acquired calls from acquaintances jeering or doubting his work.

“However I used to be heartened after accumulating increasingly more trash … and I decided that I have to learn the way many items are in a rustic the place we will’t go and what we will discover from that trash,” Kang mentioned. “When the wind blew and the waves ran excessive, one thing all the time washed ashore and I used to be so glad as a result of I may discover one thing new.”

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