STOCKHOLM — A trio of Swedish entrepreneurs launched a line of designer jeans made in North Korea, saying today they hope to help break the country’s isolation by joining the handful of foreign manufacturers operating in the communist nation.
North Korea, built on a philosophy of “self-reliance” and fierce national pride, is one of the world’s most closed countries. Foreigners — and foreign goods — are largely seen as a threat by the communist regime.
Still, over the years, the challenge of doing business in a country seen as uncharted territory and the lure of untapped cheap labor has drawn a number of foreigners determined to find a way to make goods in North Korea. South Korean firms now draw on North Korean labor to make everything from clocks to kitchen utensils.
The latest product to come with the “Made in North Korea” stamp: designer denim.
“It was a way for us to contact the country,” said Tor Rauden Kallstigen, who founded “Noko Jeans” with associates Jakob Ohlsson and Jacob Astrom.
“Our interest for North Korea goes way back because it’s just a black spot on the map,” Rauden Kallstigen said.
The jeans only come in black, partly because blue jeans are associated with the United States and have a negative stigma in North Korea.
About 1,100 pairs are going on sale — over the Internet today and at the PUB department store in Stockholm on Saturday.
“Noko Jeans” come in two models, the slim-fit “Kara” and the loose-fit “Oke” — an apparent play on “karaoke” singing popular across Asia. The price tag is 1,500 kronor ($220) — more than two years’ wages for an average North Korean.
Two officials at North Korea’s embassy in Stockholm confirmed in telephone conversations with The Associated Press that the jeans are made in their country. They declined to give their names.
Ohlsson said the jeans only come in black, partly because of the stigma of blue jeans in North Korea. But chances of seeing the brand — regardless of color — on the streets of Pyongyang are very small.
Jeans have been banned in the country for years since they are considered a symbol of U.S. imperialism, said Choi Eun-suk, a professor of North Korean legal affairs at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.
In 2005, the regime also urged the country’s women to refrain from wearing trousers, saying Western clothing dampen the revolutionary spirit and blur national pride.
The three Swedish entrepreneurs had no previous experience in fashion when they set out on their mission to strike a business partnership in North Korea in 2007.
Ohlsson said it took his team almost a year to get the official invitation needed to enter the country.
“What really motivated us wasn’t the money, but to open doors,” he said. “There are normal people there, but all we’ve really seen from it is their military marches on TV.”
He said the project posed ethical problems because they didn’t want to support North Korea’s undemocratic regime. In the end, the trio decided that the net effect of doing business there would be positive because it would help break the country’s isolation.
“We think that the increased contacts, that we bring influences in and out (of North Korea), can give the country a positive push,” Ohlsson said. “We will never defend North Korea and what they do to their citizens.”
North Korea’s 24 million people are led with absolute authority by Kim Jong Il, who bears such power that even crumpling up a newspaper carrying his image runs the risk of severe punishment. The regime exerts tight control over its people, prohibiting the average citizen from accessing outside TV, radio or Internet.
The few foreigners allowed into the country are kept on a short leash, typically housed in special hotels for foreigners and watched closely by minders.
Although North Korea’s relations with Sweden and other European countries are less strained than those with the United States — its rival during the 1950-53 Korean War — European companies do not get any special treatment, Koh Il-dong at the Korea Development Institute in Seoul said.
The country has few trading partners, with China and South Korea being their largest.
Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said export items include magnesite and other natural resources, agricultural and fishery goods, sand and mushrooms.
The Swedish entrepreneurs said they settled on importing jeans because it was one of the potential export products they felt they could relate to as young Swedes. The textile factory that manufactures their jeans belongs to a mining group that they had been in contact with.
They said they closed their first deal over a shot of Swedish vodka during a visit to North Korea.
It remains to be seen whether “Noko Jeans” will be a commercial success in Sweden.
“There might be a small group of people that will think that North Korean-made jeans are really cool, but I’m not sure that’s enough,” said Tobias Bergholm, a 22-year-old salesman at a Carlings clothing store in Stockholm, which doesn’t carry the brand.
Jean-Jacques Grauhar, secretary general of the Seoul-based European Union Chamber of Commerce in Korea, said the new jeans brand would help boost North Korea’s image. “Already, I’m sure that people have been surprised to find in the same sentence ‘designer’ and ‘North Korea,’” he said.