Ever Wondered What it’s Like Inside a North Korean Shoe Factory?

One of the quirks of visiting North Korea is that suddenly, everything becomes fascinating. Media representations of the country play a large role in it – we’re so used to seeing military parades, missile tests and propaganda newsreels, that commonplace, day-to-day life inside the so-called ‘Hermit Kingdom’ becomes a positively novel concept in comparison. Even the most mundane scenes, events, conversations, take on a whole new significance.

It was during my second trip to the country that the factory visit appeared on the itinerary; and while a small-town shoe factory wouldn’t usually sound that thrilling, the idea of seeing a small-town shoe factory in North Korea had me more excited than I can easily explain.

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In my mind I was picturing hard hats and gantries; conveyor belts, steam, and great big clanking machines. Of course, by the time we finally got to the Rason shoe factory I found it somewhat underwhelming – just as you’d expect, really, it was a bit dull – but even in its dullness the facility revealed tantalising little details, glimpses of a culture so very far removed from our own.

The factory site consisted of a series of small, low-ceilinged buildings set around a central yard. The first was unstaffed – a hall filled with machinery, belts, racks and industrial leather presses. Boxes and crates lay stacked in a dark corner towards the back of the hall. Red slogans were printed in Korean script across the walls. Finished shoes lay out for inspection on metal shelves; clean, smart, fashionable, for all I could tell. And why shouldn’t they be? Even big name brands like Ripcurl have been shown to use North Korean manufacturing sites for their clothes.

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Our local guides on that tour – Mr. Song and Mr. Kim – gave us time to shuffle about, snapping photos of cold, empty conveyor belts. Steely, sanitised work stations. Then they led us out, through the courtyard, and into the next building beyond; this one, busy with the sounds of life and labour.

There were perhaps a dozen people working in the factory that day… so that when our group arrived, complete with two Korean guides and our Western tour company representative, we doubled the body count. It was cold inside, our breath misting and all of the workers wrapped in thick wool-padded jackets, hats, and even gloves. They didn’t so much as glance up at our arrival.

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Immediately, the incoming tourists got to work at documenting this space. Documenting these people. They poked lenses at them for close-up portraits; framed weathered hands stitching fresh leather. In the previous room I had been more than happy to photograph machines, but here I found myself worrying about exploitation. It was uncomfortable, and though the workers didn’t seem to notice the flashing cameras I found it difficult to join in. I slunk around the corners of the room instead, photographing propaganda slogans printed across the walls:

“Let us stick to the rules for light industry renovation thoroughly!”

“Let us sweat more for our mother country!”

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That’s what the characters meant, according to a Korean-speaking friend of mine. Rousing stuff.

Nearby, a poster torn from a magazine displayed the message:

“With the spirit and soul of conquering the Universe, let us make the new turning point for accomplishment of strong economy!”

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Rason Shoe Factory 7Portrait photography is a curious art. I have spent a reasonable amount of time around photographers now, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some truly excellent ones… but I’ve witnessed, too, just how intrusive it can be to capture those perfect portrait photos.

On my previous trip to North Korea, I had seen it on the Pyongyang Metro: when a Finnish photographer cornered a group of schoolgirls on the train. They were dressed in matching uniforms, blue skirts, white blouses, red neckerchiefs, and he immediately began snapping at them with his camera. It was horrible to watch. It seemed brutish, rude, physically invasive and with a nasty, smutty undertone to the whole spectacle… but the end results, these intimate shots of nervous-looking children, won a photography award.

There in the shoe factory I kept reminding myself we were expected to be taking photographs. Knowing the level of paranoia that North Korea typically displays in deciding what foreign visitors may or may not see, I could only assume that this small group of workers had been prepared for our visit; trained for it, even. Some critics theorise that the regime goes so far as employing actors to interact with tourists – though the shoes these people were stitching looked real enough to me.

Either way, these workers were presented for our touristic consumption in just the same way that monuments and museums had been featured throughout the rest of the tour. I did take a few photographs of people working; I joined in the process of objectification, for a while, until it began to feel uncomfortable again and I put my camera away.

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While the rest of the group continued snapping around me, I wondered what these workers (and/or possibly actors) thought of us. Did they believe we were genuinely fascinated by the process of stitching and assembling cheap sports shoes? They must have thought we were an odd bunch, to have been so captivated by the mundane function of their workplace.

Alternatively, perhaps they knew that Westerners were photographing them because we thought they were strange. Or then again, maybe they were proud to be photographed: maybe it was an honour to serve as a living illustration for the North Korean proletariat. I stood there on the freezing factory floor and tried to imagine what was going through their heads… while the rest of my tour group swarmed around them like children at a zoo.

Neither for the first, nor not nearly for my last time in the country, I wished with all my heart that I could just sit down, even for five minutes, and have an honest, open and frank conversation with one of the locals. I’ve been twice now, and likely I’ll visit again some day… but the experience feels so carefully managed, that each time I come away from North Korea I’m left with more questions than I had to begin with.

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