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Garbage Hunters: Deciphering North Korea Through Its Trash

Garbage Hunters: Deciphering North Korea Through Its Trash
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Garbage Hunters: Deciphering North Korea Through Its Trash

On a blustery January afternoon, Professor Kang Dong-won is scouring the beach for trash — specifically, North Korean trash that’s washed ashore on the remote Yeonpyeong Island near the disputed sea border with North Korea.

“Ah, right here,” Kang exclaims as he reaches under a heap of garbage tangled by a fraying rope. “Eskimo,” he says, holding up a blue plastic package. “North Korean ice cream.”

It’s the 35th different type of Eskimo brand ice cream Kang has found during his past year of hunting for North Korean garbage. In total, he says he has collected 1,414 pieces of North Korean trash from South Korean beaches.

“The waste is so diverse — food, beverages, snacks, medicines, cosmetics. It’s like a little (North Korean) market here at the beach,” says Kang, a professor of political science and diplomacy at Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea.

Though it may seem strange, examining trash is one of the few ways to observe North Korea’s economy firsthand during the coronavirus pandemic, which has made the country more inaccessible than ever to outsiders.

New ‘dark age’

Since North Korea sealed its borders in February 2020, most foreigners, such as diplomats and aid workers, have left the country.

Increased border patrols — which include shoot-to-kill orders, according to U.S. officials — have drastically reduced the flow of defectors and smuggling across the North Korea-China border.

Meanwhile, domestic travel restrictions complicate the ability of North Koreans to covertly use Chinese cell phones to communicate with those outside the country.

The restrictions are severing already fragile links to North Korea, plunging the country into what some observers say is a new “information dark age.”

The situation is frustrating for scholars like Kang, who has visited Pyongyang and made several research trips to Chinese cities on the North Korea border. Since those kinds of trips are now impossible, he has instead turned to trash.

Trash: more revealing than you may think

During a brief garbage hunt with VOA, Kang found a diverse range of items, including toothpaste containers, instant noodle packages, fruit juice boxes, and a piece of North Korean propaganda slamming South Korean conservatives.

Even simple commercial products can offer insights about North Korea’s economy.

Mundane details such as ingredient lists and production dates can show what North Korea is able to produce and import during the pandemic.

Many of the packages specify the exact North Korean factory where the product was made. In some cases, the factory is a known military facility — a detail that can indicate what products the North provides to its soldiers, Kang says.

Even the packaging material holds clues. Newer trash, Kang says, is often composed of recycled or locally sourced product, likely because of North Korea’s import difficulties.

The most insightful trash, according to Kang, is North Korean medicine containers, which help him better understand the kind of traditional Korean methods of healthcare often used in North Korea. “This is revealing because these items could not be easily obtained even if I were able to visit North Korea,” he says.

Kang also pays attention to the way North Korea, perhaps the least capitalist country in the world, markets its products. In recent years, he says, North Korean brands have put more effort into creating sleek advertising on their products. “Not even North Korea can ignore the tastes and desires of its people,” he says.

Locals unimpressed

Although North Korean garbage can be found on several South Korean beaches, many of Kang’s trash hunts occur on Yeonpyeong Island.

Part military outpost, part quiet fishing village, Yeonpyeong feels disconnected from the rest of South Korea. It is reachable only by a passenger ferry that runs once a day, if weather conditions allow.

At its closest, North Korean territory is just four kilometers away from Yeonpyeong and easily visible with the naked eye. It’s not difficult to find North Korean trash here, especially at beaches facing the North.

But many longtime residents say they barely notice the North Korean garbage. Eighty-one-year-old Oh Gui-im, who frequently collects oysters at the beach, says she’s seen a lot more than just trash wash ashore during her 55 years on the island.

“Landmines also float around,” she told VOA. “You have no idea how much stuff comes from the North. So many products — and even human corpses.”

Growing trend

While local residents may be unimpressed by the trash, a growing number of Korea analysts are interested, especially when so many other sources of information about North Korea have run dry.

“It’s kind of become, I like to say, like lunar studies,” says Chad O’Carroll, the Seoul-based chief executive of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea. “Telescopes, satellite imagery — that’s pretty much how we’re having to do it.”

Examining North Korean trash is not only a way to learn about North Korea’s economy, he says, it’s also a way to feel more physically connected to the country.

“North Korea is a very abstract country and when you’re looking at it through the computer screen all day and making phone calls and researching online, it’s sometimes easy to forget that it’s just a few dozen miles away from where we’re sitting right now,” he says.

Kang agrees. He says at first some questioned why a university professor would spend so much time looking through trash. But he says he’s found so much useful info that he’s written a book on the topic.

“With this trash, I can see the lives of North Koreans,” he says.

With North Korea closed indefinitely, scraps may be all that he has for a while.

Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.