Planet Money
9:49 am
Fri July 26, 2013

Stamps, Jeans, Beer: What Americans Want From North Korea

Originally published on Mon July 29, 2013 9:01 am

U.S. sanctions mean that any citizen or business wanting to buy stuff from North Korea has to send a letter to the U.S. government asking for special permission. A few months back, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request, asking for those letters.

Our request was granted: We recently received a packet of 18 letters from Americans who wanted to do business with the most isolated nation on the planet. We've posted all of the letters online.

We also managed to track down some of the people who wrote the letters. Here's what we learned:

Stamps

Donald Sundman, president of Mystic Stamp Co. in Camden, N.Y., asked for permission to buy postage stamps from North Korea. Some North Korean stamps show pictures of dogs. There's at least one that, weirdly, has a picture of Princess Diana. Another, less weirdly, has a picture of a unified Korean peninsula.

Sundman told me he wanted to get the stamps because, basically, they're hard to get — which makes them appealing for some collectors.

This is one theme in the requests to do business with North Korea: People don't want North Korean stuff because it's cheap or well-made; people want the stuff because it's hard to get. They want special permission to buy stuff because the sanctions make it hard to buy stuff.

Jeans

Patrick Forster, CFO of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Tennessee, asked for permission to buy a pair of $220 jeans that were made in North Korea. He told me he thought they'd make a nice birthday present for his wife, whose father escaped from North Korea during the war. The government granted his request.

"She's only worn them one time," he said. "They didn't fit quite right."

The jeans are called NoKo jeans, and they're the brainchild of a few young Swedish guys who, on a whim, managed to get 1,100 pairs of jeans made in North Korea — despite the fact that jeans are seen as a symbol of imperialism in the country.

"We didn't use the word 'jeans' during the production," Tor Kallstigen told me. "The company was called Pants Provided."

Beer

One guy wanted to import North Korean beer. I couldn't track him down, but I did find a guy who had tasted it. Josh Thomas, a graphic designer in Hong Kong, told me it tastes just like Anchor Steam. He said North Korea bought a brewery in the U.K. and brought it over to North Korea.

I don't know whether the request to import North Korean beer was granted, but I've never seen North Korean beer in this country. Thomas says he tried to bring some back to Hong Kong with him. The bottles weren't very well-made, and when the barometric pressure dropped, they burst.

For More: Listen to our show, The North Korea Files.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, a story about doing business with a pariah state. The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, no trade. And North Korea has faced decades of U.S. sanctions. But some Americans are hoping to get around those sanctions and do something completely forbidden: buy things from North Korea. Planet Money's Zoe Chace tracked some of them down.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: In order to buy something from North Korea, you have to ask for special permission, a waiver from the sanctions. I did a Freedom of Information request to get these public documents, so here they are. Thumbing through the letters, you got to wonder, what kind of sketchy, shadowy character would be so determined to trade with the sworn enemy of the United States?

DONALD SUNDMAN: I'm Donald Sundman. I'm president of Mystic Stamp Company, America's leading stamp dealer in Camden, New York.

CHACE: Stamps. That's the kind of thing people want to break the sanctions for, a little window into the soul of an enigmatic place. Kitsch drives a lot of these requests. It's cool to be able to say, look, I have a pair of jeans from North Korea. And indeed, somebody does, the wife of one Patrick Forster, CFO of a Coca-Cola bottling plant out in Tennessee.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE KEYPAD AND RINGING)

PATRICK FORSTER: Hello, this is Patrick.

CHACE: Forster asked the government for permission to import exactly one pair of $220 jeans made in North Korea to give to his wife on her birthday. Her father escaped from the North during the war and left his family behind. And the U.S. government said yes. So what did she think?

FORSTER: I think she's only worn them one time.

CHACE: Oh, no. Really?

FORSTER: Yeah. They didn't fit quite right.

CHACE: The company that sells these North Korean jeans, it's a story in and of itself. It's called NoKo jeans. It's a Swedish company started by this young Swedish hipster kid who one day happened to be Googling North Korea when he came across an official-looking website with a list of exports on it.

Not actual exports. More like an export wish list, stuff North Korea wanted to be selling to the world.

TOR KALLSTIGEN: Potato starch, heavy shipbuilding, some rockets, and at the very end of this page a photo of a pair of blue jeans. And in the very bottom of the page below the jeans, there was an email address, like contact us if you would like to send your business inquiry.

CHACE: Tor Kallstigen and his friends, they were just kids in their 20s. They thought it'd be cool to make North Korean jeans and sell them in the West. So they filled out some paperwork, bought a couple suits, flew over to Pyongyang and acted like bosses.

KALLSTIGEN: We were speaking very big words about building relations between the European Union and North Korea.

CHACE: The North Koreans didn't really know how to make jeans, but the fact that this could happen at all in North Korea suggests that North Korea is sort of in on the joke. They know, on some level, that if, say, the Swiss brand is synonymous with fine craftsmanship and precision, the North Korean brand is odd, otherworldly kitsch. Why else would jeans have been on that list of wishful exports?

No one in North Korea wears jeans. They're not allowed.

KALLSTIGEN: The word jeans was basically blacklisted during the production so the company was called Pants Provided.

CHACE: Do you think they knew they were making jeans or they just thought they were making pants?

KALLSTIGEN: I mean, it didn't really matter to them as long as we weren't really speaking openly about it inside the country.

CHACE: Not every North Korean product is valuable only as kitsch. There is at least one product that North Koreans make that's just good. Beer. I couldn't track down the guy who wanted to import it, but I did find someone who'd tasted it.

JOSH THOMAS: Literally, if you closed your eyes and you had a - do you know of the beer called Anchor Steam?

CHACE: Yeah.

THOMAS: Yeah. It tastes exactly like that.

CHACE: Josh Thomas, graphic designer in Hong Kong, tasted this beer on a recent visit, sitting in a bar attached to the brewery. And it could've been a bar anywhere in the West.

THOMAS: It was really nice. We're sitting in there and there's six beers on draft. It's beautiful. It had been fully restored. It's like hardwood floors. We're watching Real Madrid on a projection screen.

CHACE: A bar like this is obviously the reason for sanctions in the first place. North Korea is a repressive regime. Most North Koreans could never afford to drink beer in this bar. The people who made these requests, they understand the purpose of our sanctions, to pressure the North Korean government to change. But some analysts will tell you sanctions are a double-edged sword, especially with dictators.

They can really hurt the people while the dictator finds other means of support. The stamp buyer, the jeans maker, even the beer drinker, they are curious, sure. But they all say they're hoping to reach around the sanctions and get to the North Korean people. Zoe Chace, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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