Vice: Hello, Noko Jeans, guys. Why would you produce jeans in North Korea?
Jacob Åström: Jeans happened to be our way into the most secluded place on Earth. Everything in the world is accessible through Google and Wikipedia except for, well, North Korea. It turned into an obsession.
North Korea doesn’t even have a website.
Tor Rauden Källstigen: The closest you get is a fan site, Korea-dpr.com, run by the Korean Friendship Association. Hungover on Tor’s couch on a Sunday morning in the summer of 2007, we discovered the KFA had a business section. You could produce stuff like motorbikes, tanks, cosmetics and jeans. We were like, “Jeans? Of course!”
So you decided to get in touch with a bunch of freaks who admire North Korean politics?
Tor: We eventually realized that all they offered was a super expensive business trip.
Jakob O: It was a big disappointment. But we didn’t give up. Without knowing how you go about it, we contacted some companies in China, asking for further contact with factories in Pyongyang.
You had no clue about what you were doing?
Jacob Å: We didn’t know shit. We started randomly calling up trade experts.
Tor: The breakthrough was when we got a meeting with Mr. Chang at the North Korean Embassy in Stockholm. We were nervous as their usual business with Europe consists of exporting a thousand tons of zinc to Italy and we wanted to produce very few amount of jeans.
Did you have to bribe him with strippers and Absolut Vodka?
Tor: The challenge wasn’t to convince them to do business with us. With the US trade embargo, they’re happy for any business they can get. The challenge was to constantly explain that we were not interested in buying a zinc factory the size of a football field.
Um, how did it go from jeans to zinc factories?
Jakob O: We didn’t know jeans were forbidden in North Korea or that it’s impolite to say no there, so they kept trying to get us into producing other things. The meetings would start with us suggesting we do a thousand pairs of jeans and they’d answer, “Not enough,” and try to convince us to make 150,000 jackets instead. When that didn’t work, they tried to get us to buy zinc and we had to start all over.
Jakob Å: They also wanted help importing make-up and a couple of Volvo buses.
Tor: We met with Mr. Chang once every other week, so in the end we became friends and he finally arranged for us to travel to North Korea on a business trip tailored especially for us. We even got to set the schedule!
Look at you, a VIP trip to North Korea! What was it like?
Tor: We went there by train, a 25-hour journey from Beijing. Besides a Chinese dude, we were the only foreigners.
Did you talk to any North Koreans?
Jacob Å: They didn’t speak English, so we had to find other ways of communicating. Slapstick humor was very popular, like making one of the little snuffboxes that we’d brought with us “talk.” We’d make the box say “Hello” using the lid as the mouth. They loved it! We used that during our entire stay, and we’d let the box talk to bigger and bigger things. The highlight was when we said hello to the table at a business dinner. People laughed so hard they cried!
Did that work on the obligatory guide and translator assigned to keep an eye on you?
Jacob Å: She made us laugh. Imagine a North Korean girl our age with the strongest Texan accent, like, “Haye gaaays, where ye’ going?” Hilarious!
Curiosity killed the cat.
Jacob Å: We stayed in a humongous 1,500-room hotel. The only other people staying there were a Russian tap-dance team, an old Swede who was an elevator engineer, and a bunch of Egyptian concrete experts who had just invested $3,000,000 in North Korea.
Did they serve you giant bunnies?
Jacob Å: Um, no. We did, however, eat some yummy double burgers, their version of a Big Mac, at this restaurant we found on one of our walks. They let us walk around on our own! It took some nagging, though.
Tor: Walking at night was the best. As they had no streetlights, it was pitch black. You could see every star in the sky and the bluish lights from the windows in the massive housing compounds were like an LED display, with people moving or lighting a cigarette.
Jacob Å: There’s a car with loudspeakers driving around, waking people up at 6 AM. We called it “The SHOUT! Car”.
But how exactly did you get North Korea to say yes to jeans?
Tor: We had tons of meetings! You’d start by meeting a manager. If it went well, you’d meet the middle manager, then the general manager, and so on. For every new person, you had to do the presentation all over again, gain their trust, and sell the idea of making jeans, or “fashion pants,” as we called them.
Sounds like a video game.
Tor: Exactly; you’d finish one level, fight the boss, and then move on to the next until you meet the big boss. Fail once and you lose!
Did you fight the final boss?
Jakob O: We got a sign-off, yes. We were lucky because he was young and nice.
Tor: Clothing is one of their main industries because China subcontracts production there to get cheaper labor. But it’s all hushed up, and the clothes are still labeled “Made in China.” Then we come along, promising not only to be open about where the jeans are made but also to build our whole concept around it.
Wait a minute! You’re basically doing North Korean propaganda. How can you live with yourselves?
Jakob O: We believe we’re making some kind of small difference by going there and talking to them. For example, we told them all European companies require CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility, and that if they want to start trading with Europe they have to adjust. Which isn’t entirely true, but it feels good to have spread the notion of ethical conditions, like decent work hours and no child labour. We’re convinced that we’re doing something good.
And you think they’ll follow your standards?
Tor: We’ve seen the factory and it’s a holiday camp compared to the factories we saw in China. It’s brand new, with some hundred workers, all in colorful uniforms, and the ambiance is calm and quiet. They even had karaoke machines on all floors, the vintage kind with laser discs. And there’s a badminton court on the top floor, so we’ll bring rackets next time.
Sounds like they put on a nice show for you.
Words: Milène Larsson
Related: The Curious Case of Grandpa Button.