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Jeans 'made in North Korea' set to hit store shelves in Sweden

AFP/The Local · 2 Dec 2009, 16:19

Published: 02 Dec 2009 16:19 GMT+01:00

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"The first 1,100 individually numbered jeans" will initially be sold in a Stockholm department store and on the Internet, and then in selected stores elsewhere, Noko Jeans said.

Jakob Ohlsson, Jacob Åström and Tor Rauden Källstigen -- all under the age of 25 -- said their project stemmed from a desire to make contact with the isolated communist state.

North Korea "has been isolated for so long and ethically, we thought that any sort of increased contact with the outside world would be good," Ohlsson told AFP.

"It's a country that sometimes treats its citizens terribly, but we think that our project is a way... to influence things" positively, he added.

The trio first contacted North Korean officials in mid-2007 by email, after finding an official website about outsourcing production to North Korea.

"The first year, we spent time trying to gain access to the country," Ohlsson explained, adding that the trio visited North Korea twice, once to choose a factory and the second time to oversee production.

Production of Noko's two models of jeans began in mid-2009 after a series of obstacles that included "being turned down by the biggest garment company in North Korea."

While made in a communist country that has all but been cut off from foreign influence -- and business -- for the past 60 years, the jeans, not available for purchase in North Korea, will not come cheap.

Shoppers will have to fork out around 1,500 Swedish kronor ($226) for a pair of dark denims.

"The reason they are so expensive is that we didn't have any experience in fashion, trading, or anything like that, and all of this knowledge that we didn't have we needed to get," Ohlsson said.

The project also included some misadventures, and the small number of jeans available was not an attempt to create an exclusive product.

"We were supposed to start by making 5,000 pairs of jeans and our calculations were maybe not so good," Ohlsson said.

The assembly of the pants -- the cut, the make and trim -- is all done in North Korea, the company said.

Ohlsson explained Noko jeans were made of black denim because North Koreans "usually associate blue jeans with America, that's why it's a little bit taboo."

While the upstarts are not targetting the North Korean market with their jeans, they said in a statement they hoped to one day "make clothes that our friends in the country can wear too."

Story continues below…

The young firm played down the fact it was doing business in a country often criticised for its poor human rights record.

"We'd seen the factory... you could produce something there and still look yourself in the mirror," Ohlsson said.

"When we arrived in North Korea in 2008, we expected worse (than in previously visited China) but were rather happily surprised to see a clean factory, lots of space," Noko Jeans said, adding it stayed in North Korea for 10 days to control the application of a business code of conduct based on European standards.

"No, it is not a sweatshop," the firm said of its Pyongyang-area factory.

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Your comments about this article

17:09 December 2, 2009 by Beynch
Where are AFA, SSU, and the rest of the leftist vermin when we need them? I want to hear protests!
17:23 December 2, 2009 by Nemesis
The entrepreneurs involved are to be congratulated for opening up this new market.

This can only be a good thing.

Slow and moderate engagement, slowly increasing as time goes on, will help to change that society.
17:37 December 2, 2009 by Iraniboy
That's a very good initiative! People should understand that those thing that they hear in the news is just govermental communcations between countries and it doesn't reflect what people are. If they have a stupid leader, it shouldn't disqualify all of them from earning money and living. I'm sorry for those narrow-minded people who think otherwise.
18:23 December 2, 2009 by peropaco
Kudos to them.
18:26 December 2, 2009 by Bushido
"No, it is not a sweatshop," the firm said of its Pyongyang-area factory.

Naivety, or lies on the part of the "entrepreneurs"?

I don't doubt that North Korea put on a good show for these guys, but the fact that are so painfully naive begs belief. The workers from these factories do not earn "money and a living", and in fact barely have enough food to survive. Malnutrition is rife, and the people working at these factories are not better off than those who don't.

The lack of awareness to the suffering there is incredible. As are the gleeful comments here about this venture being good for the people working to produce the product out of sheer brainwashing and blind-idealism. They have no idea that the products are going to line the pockets of the sick exploitative westerners.

The founders of "Noko" are no different to the human traffickers. The essence of what they are doing is no different. Thankfully, there will be many protests to their product, and many closed doors to stocking the jeans, aside from the illegal status in many countries due to the sanctions.

I'm just glad that the product has no added-value. Despite the bovine thoughts of the founders, and the comments herein, there is simply no "wow" factor in having a pair of jeans that have been made under such circumstances.
20:13 December 2, 2009 by spy
Entrepreneurs? $226 for a pair of jeans without any brand? Madness?
20:18 December 2, 2009 by BravoTango
As long as the North Korean government's share of the money received from this business venture is used to improve its peoples' lives then this is good. If the money is used to buy scotch and cigars for Kim Jong Il or one of his cronies, then this was a waste of effort.
20:28 December 2, 2009 by Bushido
Perhaps next they'll be doing Taliban T-Shirts for the good of Afghanistan?
21:17 December 2, 2009 by glamshek
'We'd seen the factory... you could produce something there and still look yourself in the mirror'

Its good to know.

It shows how media war stifles the lives of ordinary people and a whole country. The responsibility is on these avaracious politicians who do dirty politics keeping the people in dark about the real facts and only try to acheive their own power agendas.
21:27 December 2, 2009 by GefleFrequentFlyer
I'm sure our righteous swedes will have no problem snapping these up without thinking about the consequences of thie actions by feeding ego of a country that oppresses it's own people. Not a sweatshop, riiiight. I'm sure they make a livable wage, and are just trying to provide for thier families...Im sure the union will remain mum too.

My nordic friends also see nothing wrong with taking a holiday in Cuba....
21:50 December 2, 2009 by aaww
"The reason they are so expensive is that we didn't have any experience in fashion, trading, or anything like that, and all of this knowledge that we didn't have we needed to get,"

this is really strange, if you do not have experience, you should not be in this industry, if you do not know how to do it, you will most likely be killed by larger competitors, this is nature of business world

kinda strange that no experience becomes a reason for expensiveness.
23:11 December 2, 2009 by krigeren
I have several jeans that cost in the 200 to 300 dollar range. There should not be a problem selling them. 7 for all man kind...true religion.

I think its awesome they are engaging in dialogue and opening a country up a sliver. If we all did that with north korea, north korea would not have the same issues it does today.....with trade and economic development often freedom follows unless its tightly controlled natural resources.

The only bother is....the voice on the video..its a computer voice or someone who cannot speak English very well yet sounds like they have a North American accent.

Good luck Noko...cool to see a company do something out of the ordinary.
23:52 December 2, 2009 by someoneonthenet
Instead of punishing all North Koreans, West should concentrate on punishing its leadership. Depriving average person from buying or selling stuff to West just makes things worse for average North Korean.

All sanctions should target North Korea's leadership instead of whole North Korea.
00:08 December 3, 2009 by Rebel
Made in North Korea -- where quality is recognized world wide.
00:49 December 3, 2009 by Bushido

North Koreans are not allowed to sell "stuff" to foreigners. North Koreans are not even allowed to talk to foreigners, both are punishable by death. Everything is carefully coordinated by the State, which is why it takes so long to get visa's to go there. One has to go as part of a tour group, unless a special visa is arranged. You can even see by the video, that Noko were strictly chaperoned, with photo and video opportunities carefully scripted under the Ryohaengsa regime.

The hotels used on the official tours are owned by the State, the restaurants are owned by the state. Which reminds me, I hope Noko enjoyed their food, whilst the majority of NK's are literally starving, hence the 1 Million tons of food aid from South Korea and China per year. There is no free enterprise, except the black market, which includes selling medical supplies and Korean women to the Chinese, over the border. However, the back market is controlled by governmental officials.

What Noko do not say in their rather stupid video, is that every second they spent in NK was carefully orchestrated, their footage was scrutinized, and they were only allowed to come into direct contact with pre-approved members of the population. even the factory where they apparently believe their jeans are made was an illusion. We are talking about a regime, lead by a dead president and his fat son, that divided families and cut of communication overnight and have controlled the people ever since by a strict campaign of propaganda. This is no different.

North Korean defectors have testified to the existence of prison and detention camps with an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 inmates (about 0.85% of the population), and have reported torture, starvation, rape, murder, medical experimentation, forced labour, and forced abortions.

A few obsequious idiots with no understanding of what they are dealing with, and what they are selling, are now trying to tell us that North Korea is Utopia and that the population there are healthy and happy, and also that a free market exists; you just need a great idea like, jeans.

I'm disappointed that people are so unaware of what NK actually is, including the regime and the people etc, and yet makes comments such as "awesome" to describe lining the pockets of corrupt government and dictatorship.
01:35 December 3, 2009 by jimmyjames
It is extremely difficult for me to get my mind around several facts surrounding this article : 1.) How is it possible for grown adults in a modern industrial/technological country be so completely ignorant about contemporary socio/political global situations? 2.) How could one go to a country where you are forbidden to leave your motel room without an escort and seriously contemplate opening a factory? 3.) Oh....what the hell !!! I could continue but seriously if they are that stupid why put forth the effort.
02:43 December 3, 2009 by AlbionKyle
You are kidding me! The average yearly income of North Korean is about 27000 Krona a year. So you can really make those jeans way cheaper to exploit cheap labour in NK! Or you are bribing the wrong officials...
11:21 December 3, 2009 by calebian22

It is probably naivety mixed with greed in an attempt to overlook the glaringly obvious.
12:12 December 3, 2009 by Tennin
I agree with Bushido on this one. All Noko is doing is helping Kim Jung-il to line his pockets while the rest of the North Koreans are starving.
13:19 December 3, 2009 by samwise
If I remember correctly, Swedes used to trade with the nazis who were oppressing jews, poles, and the rest.

All the old arguments for that kind of action are resurrected now I guess. Maybe they have never died.
13:38 December 3, 2009 by diegoveggie
the whole country is a sweatshop!
16:46 December 3, 2009 by nokojeans
Hello dear commentators. We worked more than 2,5 years (still without any salary for any of us) to realize this project so I really hope that you understand that this is much more than us going to North Korea for ten days and setting up a jeans factory….. We stayed at the factory for the whole time during the production to make sure that our code of conduct was followed to the point. I don't know any other example of any other garment producer in the world who show that kind of dedication in making sure that the CSR-policy is more than a piece of paper….

The price of the jeans is to cover our expenses, but since the interest for the jeans seems to be huge at the moment we might have some money left beginning of next year. And some of that money will of course be given back to the country and/or the factory somehow. The biggest problem for us is to find a solution where the money doesn't end up in the wrong place, and just goes to the regime (there are countless examples of people working with charity-projects who get played by corrupt politicans, and not just in NK but also in China, etc)….

We are aware of the fact that North Korea is a country that likes to put up a good facade, but us physically being present at the factory when ALL of the production has been made (and documenting it) should be guarantee enough for anyone who questions whether or not the jeans has been made under humane conditions, or whether or not our footage is from the actual factory (we have hours of material, anyone who wants to dig deep feel free to e-mail us and we'll show you). However, the comment saying that that our footage has been scrutinized is wrong. It is true that for regular tourist trips and for journalists going to NK the footage is usually looked through. But since we are a business venture, we were granted the privilege to be much more free to document and travel inside this very closed country. Please feel free to send any questions to info@nokojeans.com and we will try to answer them!
19:03 December 3, 2009 by samwise
dear nokojeans, if you are the one running this thing there.

you don't seem to grasp how a communist regime works.

if it was indeed as simple as you described, it wouldn't take decades and countless lives to make the berlin wall collapse. we're no smarter than the past generations.

I experienced communism, my conclusion is: the reality is always worse than the worst you can possibly imagine.

you must have read some books about the evilness of communism, but it's actually worse.

I'm not saying you will experience the worst type, because they don't have to, elementary tricks will do it in your case, or maybe all they want is to use you for propaganda.

over estimating ourselves is common for mankind.

in any event, the commies seem to benefit (on the propaganda front for sure) from it already.
19:20 December 3, 2009 by Kooritze
Count me in I,ll buy a pair!
20:09 December 3, 2009 by Bushido
"nokojeans" Your "reply" is at best patronising. In your attempts to insult our intelligence, you still have not answered the core question; why it is you chose an exploitative mechanism to produce that which could have been made virtually anywhere, including your home country?

It is astounding that you infer that the State-owned factory in North Korea is ahead in Corporate Social Responsibility. What about the 9 million starving citizens? The control of economic policy leading to food shortages? That women under 49 are not allowed to trade? That people are sent to forced labour camps for being late for work or watching movies from South Korea? These all make for good examples of CSR in your book then.

You then go on to insult every person who has ever donated to NK aid, by inferring that the Aid Charities at work in NK, are all bound to be corrupted by the NK politicians, where NOKO is not. So, the UN, Red Cross, UNICEF, SOS-Children, could all benefit from your obvious years of experience. You state that you are still determined to find "a solution where the money doesn't end up in the wrong place." Just where do you suppose the invoiced money will go? To the factory or their agent perhaps, bearing in mind the factory is state-owned, and that the state is under dictatorship?

As to your video footage "since we are a business venture, we were granted the privilege to be much more free to document and travel inside this very closed country" it is utter nonsense. I happen to know from direct experience that this is false. What you get to see, who you get to talk with, and what you get to film are all environmentally orchestrated.

It's most disturbing to think that there are people as apparently naive as you are. Are you quite sure that you were not slipped some sort of drug when in NK? Due to your obvious rehearsed recollection of your experiences, I'm starting to think you are fronting an illegal trade for the NK government and ought to be investigated. I think it is more likely to be as "calebian22" succinctly said, "It is probably naivety mixed with greed in an attempt to overlook the glaringly obvious."

Either way NOKO could not sink any lower in conscience. So, NOKO, how about you now grow up, forget about your expenses, and auction the jeans of for the 100% of the proceeds to go directly to charity that actually will benefit NK?
21:16 December 3, 2009 by Jon.Wenger
I agree with Bushido and the other aware here.

But what a terrible business proposition, and poorly executed! This Noko crowd did not think at all about what they are doing;

i. Jeans designed by non-designers at $226?

ii. Unethical source with the worst record in Human Rights, so no feel-good factor on having the jeans, except for the brainless.

iii. Notoriously unreliable, therefore unsustainable supplier (this is probably why they went from 5000 to 1100 pairs over 5 years).

iv. Noko will not be able to sell these jeans in so many regions, in part due to sanctions, and but mainly due to the eventual outrage and protests (the workers who made these jeans did not have the freedom of will to decide, nor did they get paid a fair-trade wage).

v. They will not be able to secure venture funding for aforementioned reasons and so will not be able to sustain a business, unless they self fund. Given the supply problems and self-proclaimed the shortage of cash.

I can not think of a worse business idea than this. They would have done far better, if they really wanted to make jeans, to have them made somewhere with a good, ethical story. They then should have supported the story with some sort of visible giving back program, such as the one pioneered by Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop.

As an entrepreneur, from the fashion industry amongst other areas, the only reason for expending all the energy on something like this that I can think of, aside from the horrible thought that Noko are incredibly selfish or stupid, is that they are all Business School or Psychology graduate students, and this is an experiment in ethics. i.e. How unethical and blind are the public when faced with the proposition of buying an over-priced pair of jeans from a tyrannical, enslaved source such as DPRK?
01:38 December 4, 2009 by Nemesis
Some Swedes open up a new market. Well done to them I say.

Would the naysayers on this forum have critised them if they were American. No they would not have critised there fellow Americans. In fact they would praise them if they were American.

That is the problem here. Americans critising anyone not American, who is a sucess.
02:06 December 4, 2009 by Jon.Wenger
Nemesis - You are wrong. This is not about who does the trading, it is about with whom the trading is done in this case. Also, you are making a massive, unrelated assumption about nationalities to try to bolster an opposing argument. Your argument, is therefore not only weak, it is absolutely baseless.

Obviously, you have also not considered that the North Korean government officially declared Sweden their enemy and a US war puppet. Swedens crime? It is active in the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, which along with the Swiss, Sweden keeps the peace in the demilitarised zone.

So, if you are Swedish, you are supporting trade with a government that wishes to wipe Sweden off the map. Will they take your money? Certainly. Every little helps, even some revenue from "some Swedes" who want to make jeans. It will probably pay for some of the Uranium, or at least the paint for the warhead.
14:06 December 4, 2009 by Uncle
HA - HA - HA.... all the callers to boycotte evil Israel for evildoing all of a sudden DEFEND cooperation with a country, which is:

1.Keeping 6-10% of the population as free slaves in concentration camps.

2.uses terrorist methods of fighting against their southern neighbour (taking down passanger planes for example)

3.hunting and killing its own diaspora all over the world

4.demanding food in exchange of NOT ATTACKING with nuclear weapons.

All of a sudden a good and healthy trade with this cute country can change the things in the future.. All of a sudden everyone is SO understanding...

The unconditional love of the most horrible dictatorships is in such bright contrast to the unconditional and not-understanding hate of democracies...

Nemesis, you are in your best these days. Must be that time of the month.
18:19 December 4, 2009 by mkvgtired
Bushido, Good points. I saw an interview with a NK refugee. When asked what happened to his family because he escaped his eyes teared up and he looked away from the camera. I too would like to help the NK people but the government will benefit much more than these people. Regardless of what these entrepreneurs are told, most of their manufacturing fee is going to be skimmed off by the NK government. They need more warheads that can reach Tokyo (or further) if they want to keep extorting aid from other nations in exchange for peace.

Nemesis, Not true. When it was brought to light that Nike was using sweatshop labor Americans almost unanimously boycotted them. They were forced to change their manufacturing standards or they would have went bankrupt. You are right, Americans praise success. Most wouldn't consider opening a sweatshop in a country that continues to threaten its neighbors with nuclear weapons a success.

Uncle, Couldnt have said it better.
20:13 December 4, 2009 by Bushido
"nkvgtired" Indeed, the suffering there is unimaginable. Excellent point about the extortion of aid in return for peace.

Uncanny that, on the day Noko aka Jakob Ohlsson and his ignorant cronies, start selling their jeans, the DPRK population have zeroed out their own currency in a "revaluation" move. Ostensibly it was a crackdown on private markets for food products. In reality the DPRK administration was getting nervous about the amount of people who secrete money away, in order to be able to feed their families as they see appropriate. This is outlawed, as their is a strict class system in DPRK, and the only people allowed to eat freely, are the Workers Party officials, like the ones who Noko are assisting.

Jakob Ohlsson, his partners, and the PUB Stockholm retailers should be permanently boycotted for their selfish actions.
03:33 December 6, 2009 by Jon.Wenger
Did anyone hear? Noko had the plug pulled on them!
03:43 December 6, 2009 by Bushido
Excellent news about the Noko saga:

PUB has just withdrawn all sales of Noko jeans in recognition of what it would mean to be associated with the DPRK political ramifications. Rene Stephansen, PUB's director, said "this is a question about a political issue that PUB doesn't want to be associated with."

Noko's usual incredible "prowess" in public relations was evident by their statement; They said it was a "joke" and "I sincerely hope (PUB) will remove everything labelled 'made in China' as well."

It is indeed interesting that Noko have aligned their product's country of origin with the People's Republic of China. Can this possibly mean that they were aware of DPRK's denial of human rights after all? We'll never know. Perhaps Noko are activists now, as they have experienced what it's like to lose their own freedom of movement?

Well done to PUB! Unlike Noko/Jakob Ohlsson, Jacob Astrom and Tor Rauden Kaellstigen's bizarre interpretation of what Corporate Social Responsibility is, this is real CSR at work.

PUB are to be congratulated for acting responsibly. I trust that Noko will realise that this is the thin end of the wedge for them and their ill-gotten gains.
12:33 December 6, 2009 by Twiceshy
I wonder if the real factory is the one that they showed him.
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