On a January afternoon, Professor Kang Dong-won is scouring the beach for garbage – specifically, North Korean garbage that washes ashore on remote Yeonpyeong Island near the disputed maritime border with North Korea.
“Ah, right here,” Kang yells as he reaches the bottom of a pile of rubbish entangled by a frightening rope. “Eskimos,” he says, holding a blue plastic package. “North Korean Ice Cream”.
This is the 35th variety of Eskimo brand ice cream that Kang has found during his last year of hunting for North Korean garbage. In all, he says he has collected 1,414 pieces of North Korean garbage from South Korean beaches.
“The waste is so diverse – food, beverages, snacks, medicines, cosmetics. It is a small (North Korean) market on the beach,” says Kang, a professor of political science and diplomacy at Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea. is like.
While it may sound strange, checking the waste is one of the few ways to get a first-hand look at North Korea’s economy during the coronavirus pandemic, which has made the country more inaccessible to outsiders than ever before.
New ‘Dark Ages’
Since North Korea sealed its borders in February 2020, most foreigners, such as diplomats and aid workers, have left the country.
According to US officials, increased border patrols – including orders to shoot – have significantly reduced the flow of defectors and smugglers along the North Korea-China border.
Meanwhile, domestic travel restrictions complicate North Koreans’ ability to covertly use Chinese cell phones to communicate with people outside the country.
The sanctions are severing already fragile ties for North Korea, leaving the country with what some observers say is a new “information dark age”.
The situation is hopeless for scholars like Kang, who has visited Pyongyang and made several research trips to Chinese cities bordering North Korea. Since such trips are now impossible, he has turned to the trash.
Trash: More Revealing Than You Might Think
During a brief garbage hunt with the VOA, Kang found a diverse array of items critical of South Korean conservatives, including toothpaste containers, instant noodle packages, boxes of fruit juices, and a piece of North Korean propaganda.
Even simple commercial products can provide insight into the economy of North Korea.
Earthly details like ingredients lists and production dates can show what North Korea has been able to produce and import during the pandemic.
Many packages specify the exact North Korean factory where the product was made. In some cases, the factory is a known military facility—a description that may indicate what products the North provides to its troops, Kang says.
Even the packaging material holds the clue. The new waste is often made from recycled or locally sourced produce, says Kang, possibly because of North Korea’s import difficulties.
According to Kang, the most practical waste is North Korean medicine containers, which help him better understand the traditional Korean methods of health care often used in North Korea. “It is revealing because these items could not have been easily obtained, even though I was able to go to North Korea,” he says.
Kang also pays attention to how 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 attractive ads on their products. “North Korea also cannot ignore the tastes and desires of its people,” he says.
Locals are not impressed
Although North Korean waste can be found on many South Korean beaches, many of Kang’s waste dumps occur on Yeonpyeong Island.
Part military outpost, part quiet fishing village, Yeonpyeong feels isolated from the rest of South Korea. It is accessible only by a passenger ferry that runs once a day, if weather conditions permit.
At its closest, the North Korean region is just four kilometers from Yeonpyong and is easily visible with the naked eye. It’s not hard to find North Korean garbage here, especially on the beaches on the north side.
But many longtime residents say they barely notice North Korean garbage. Eighty-year-old Oh Gui-im, who often collects oysters on the beach, says she’s seen a lot more than just washing the trash 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.”
While local residents may not be impressed by the waste, a growing number of Korean analysts are interested, especially as many other sources of information about North Korea have dried up.
“It’s become a kind of, I like to say, sort of lunar study,” says Chad O’Carroll, Seoul-based chief executive of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea. “Telescopes, satellite imagery – that’s pretty much how we’re doing it.”
Checking North Korean waste 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 all day through computer screens and making phone calls and doing research online, it’s sometimes easy to forget that it’s only a few dozen miles away from where we are sitting now,” he says.
Kang agrees. He says that at first some people have questioned why a university professor spends so long looking at the dustbin. But he says he has found so much useful information that he has written a book on the subject.
“With this garbage, I can see the lives of the North Koreans,” he says.
With North Korea indefinitely locked down, scrap may be all it has for a while.
Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.