Posted February 7 2012, at 11:59 am
Noko Jeans began the summer of 2007, almost five years ago today, when we stumbled upon one of a few semi-official websites that advertised North Korean products. At that time the youngest one of us was 21 years old; the oldest 23. You could say we were kids. We were kids. At that time we perceived North Korea as something of a fantasy world. We’d seen the military parades, we knew about the political leadership and the mass games. We knew the North Korea the way it’s routinely shown in mass media. As mysterious. As unpredictable. As really unique in a little weird sense.
And, most importantly. We knew that this was the most closed country in the world. Since we only knew North Koreans from TV, it was hard for us to even imagine what meeting a North Korean would be like. But we were curious. We wanted to know for ourselves, we saw meeting someone with a completely different worldview as something positive, intriguing. We did not understand the severity of the North Korean issue. We would go so far as to say we – on an emotional level – didn’t understand that North Koreans even existed beyond the TV screen.
That’s when we sent the mythical first e-mail to “North Korea”, or rather to the people who claimed to represent the North Korean government. After this came a slow motion tumbling down the rabbit hole, a journey that is too complex to tell in a blog post, movie clip or photography. Some day we’ll try to tell it as it should be told.
It took about one year until we finally had met the right people and gotten access to visit North Korea. Up until then we’d just met with some of the representatives of the North Korean state in Sweden. They were ambassadors, politicians and economical advisors. We had also encountered numerous high rise officials of Swedish trade organizations – who all laughed and dismissed us before we had finished our first sentence. Noko Jeans was impossible, they told us. Go home.
But one year after the first stumbling e-mail we were actually allowed into the country. A privilege that few have experienced outside of the standardized and highly supervised tours that anyone can buy through many tourist agencies.
Due to the security situation in the country, and because we respect the privacy of our friends in North Korea, we will probably never be able to openly reveal what happened during this trip. But let’s just say that it completely changed our view of North Korea. Through the thick haze of military parades and juche-ideology real people emerged, etching themselves on our consciousness forever. After this journey we were, quite simply, not the same people as we had been before entering the country. And the project called Noko Jeans suddenly gained a much deeper purpose than what we had anticipated.
Fast forward one and a half years from this. We are walking through a cold december rain outside the PUB department store in Stockholm. We had just survived a media circus that literally stretched from Tokyo to San Francisco and generated articles in both Vice Fashion and Foreign Policy Magazine. We are celebrating. We look positively on the future – what if we can actually build a for-profit company that does good? What if? 24 hours later everything collapses. PUB department store throws us out because we are a “political brand” and one of the North Korean diplomats in Sweden urgently wants a meeting to discuss the future of Noko Jeans. Even before we meet we understand what the discussion will be about. All PR is good PR, it is said. But not in North Korea.
Six months along the line we were still negotiating to get a signed, official document from high ranking north koreans confirming (and agreeing to) our cooperation. A document which states that Noko Jeans is actually allowed to produce jeans in North Korea.
But it is all in vain. They never sign it.
And the production is put on indefinite hold.
Our crazy experiment that resulted in the first jeans from North Korea will also be the last jeans from North Korea, most likely for a very, very long time.
In hindsight it is clear to us that we wanted a paradox. We wanted transparency, we wanted to tell our stories about regular North Koreans – beyond the military parades. We wanted to do this since we were – and still are – totally convinced that it’s better to talk with the people inside the hermit kingdom, than to boycott them.
Trade with dictatorships is risky business. And foreign policy – regardless if deployed by a corporation or a government – is extremely complicated. We know many examples of companies who would do the world a big favour if they cut the ties with their some of their production countries. Noko Jeans is not one of them. North Korea has been isolated from the rest of the world for decades. We still want to break that isolation.
The jeans were the first chapter of this unique and controversial story. The movie, although it only tells fragments of our journey, could be seen as a second chapter. It takes our transparency one more step further. And thus, even today, five years later – we are probably the most transparent fashion company ever. Weird. We hope it will raise questions on the extremely complicated and intricate political issues associated with trade, and the general state of the fashion business.
We will continue doing this in some way. How? Well, that’s… another story.
Lots of love,
Jacob, Jakob and Tor
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