When the waves carry trash from the sea to the beaches of South Korean islands, Kang Dong Wan may be there looking for what he calls “treasures”: Debris from North Korea They allow you to see something that is out of reach for most people.
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“This material may be important because we can learn what kind of products they make in North Korea and what people there use,” Kang, a 48-year-old academic, told The Associated Press at Korea Dong-A University. from the south.
He had to resort to that way of gathering information because COVID-19 has made it that much harder to track what’s going on in one of the world’s most closed nations even without the restrictions associated with the pandemic.
Kang believes that the quantity, variety and increasing sophistication of garbage confirms official North Korean media reports that ruler Kim Jong Un is pushing the production of various types of items and industrial design to meet demands. of his people and improve their lives.
As much as he is an authoritarian ruler, Kim cannot ignore the desire of consumers, who now buy products in capitalist-like markets because the socialist rationing system does not work and economic hardships have worsened during the pandemic.
“The North Koreans are a generation of people who discovered the importance of the market and the economy. Kim cannot win his support if he goes against the grain while he insists on a nuclear program,” Kang said. “You need to show that there have been changes in your era.”
Before the pandemic, Kang regularly visited towns along the Chinese border to speak with North Koreans there. He also bought North Korean products and photographed North Korean villages across the river that forms the border between the two Koreas. But he can no longer go there because of China’s restrictions on foreign travellers.
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Since September 2020, Kang has visited five South Korean islands off the country’s western coast and collected some 2,000 items thrown into the sea, including snack bags, juice wrappers, candy wrappers and drink bottles.
Kang says he was amazed to see dozens of different types of wrappers, depending on the product. Many have a variety of graphic elements, strip characters, and different lettering. Some look like old-fashioned versions of Western patterns and would be copies of South Korean and Japanese designs.
Kang recently published a book based on his work, titled “Collecting North Korean Garbage on the Five Islands in the Western Sea.” He said that now he started looking for debris on the eastern coast of South Korea.
Other experts study North Korea’s product and packaging diversity through broadcasts and official publications, but Kang’s scrapping allows for deeper analysis, according to Ahn Kyung-su, director of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a portal focused on North Korean medical issues.
Information on the ingredients of some juices, for example, reveals that North Korea uses tree leaves as a substitute for sugar. Kang suspects this is due to a shortage of sugar and sugar processing equipment. He noted that the finding of more than 30 kinds of artificial flavor enhancers may indicate that North Koreans cannot afford more expensive natural ingredients such as meat and fish to cook traditional soups and stews.
Plastic packages for detergents have phrases like “the friend of housewives” or “accommodating women”. It seems to be taken for granted that only women use them, which would give them a lower status than men in a macho society like North Korea.
Some packaging contains exaggerated claims. One says that a walnut cake is a superior source of protein than meat. Another, that collagen ice cream makes children taller and increases skin elasticity. One says that a cupcake with a small seaweed prevents diabetes, heart disorders and aging.
North Korean snacks and cookies have improved a lot in recent years, although they don’t reach the level of South Korea’s, which are internationally recognized, according to Jeon Young-sun of Konkuk University in Seoul.
Kang says his scavenging is an effort to better understand the North Korean people in order to bring the two Koreas closer together.
Picking up rubbish on the islands is no easy task. On more than one occasion the South Korean navy questioned him because some residents found what he was doing suspicious. Sometimes the ferry service is suspended due to bad weather and is left stranded on the islands.
Kang said he once cried out of frustration at not finding anything or receiving calls from people questioning the validity of his work.