A recently published book is drawing attention for analyzing conditions in North Korea by examining North Korean trash that washed up on South Korea’s Five West Sea Islands. The author of the book says you can get a glimpse of North Korean product branding and design, factory conditions, and even North Korean political propaganda from its discarded wrappers.
North Korea expert Kang Dong-wan, a professor at Dong-A University, recently published his book “Picking Up North Korean Garbage in the Five West Sea Islands,” which analyzed North Korean trash that washed up on the South Korean islands of Baengnyeong, Daecheong, Socheong, Daeyeonpyeong and Soyeonpyeong between September of 2020 and October of 2021.
Kang said he combed through the trash that washed up over the course of a year, collecting 1,414 discarded wrappers of 708 kinds from North Korea during that period. The number 708 refers to the total number of unique products with different brands or factories of origin, while the number 1,414 includes multiple examples of the same product.
Kang said there were really quite a lot of products that have washed up on South Korean shores, from confections and drinks to other foodstuffs, sundries, and medications. He called the gathered trash “precious materials” and “treasures” useful for reading North Korean society.
Kang’s book analyzes the trash by putting it in the following categories: confections, baked goods, drinks, dairy products, foodstuffs, seasonings, liquor and cigarettes, medical supplies, and sundries.
One particularly conspicuous product is “Galaxy Candy with Strawberry Cream Inside” by Pyongyang Wheat Flour Factory, which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited in 2016.
The candy wrapper is covered in bright drawings and colors, including some cat characters that are similar to Japan’s famous “Hello Kitty” character.
Slightly altering the original Hello Kitty design, the package very likely violates intellectual property rights. The North Koreans appear to have taken advantage of the closed nature of its society and subsequent lack of international IP disputes to copy the design.
The package of the “Fried Banana Snack” by Sonhung Food Processing Factory even features the Disney character Winnie the Pooh.
Kang found that several wrappers emulated South Korean instant noodle and snack brands. He claims that if you examine the wrappers of products made in North Korea, some conspicuously copy the designs of analogous South Korean products. Kang further says the wrappers displayed similar color schemes, particular designs or content, with snack wrappers frequently displaying this tendency in particular.
According to Kang, in capitalist market economies, product wrapper and design naturally consider consumer choice. However, he expressed surprise that North Korean product wrappers also included product names, designs and even characters that suited the characteristics of the product. Kang said that this ended his thinking that a socialist nation like North Korea makes “simple-minded” products.
He said if North Korean product wrappers had been simple plastic wrappers devoid of color, he would not have noticed. Kang further states that we can see the current state of North Korean design and branding through its wrappers with unique fonts and characters that demonstrate the characteristics of each product.
The book also includes a comparative analysis of trash from various North Korean dairy, medical, and food additive products.