Update// Noko is a No Show!!

If you read our website regularly, you may have seen a post in December about Noko Jeans, a company manufacturing jeans in North Korea (DPRK).  At the end of that post I wrote:

“To tell you the truth, I don’t really know what to think about this so, I emailed Noko jeans earlier today asking about their Code of Conduct and also asking them for an interview.

If you have any questions that you would like me to ask, please let me know.  Stay tuned for an update to this fascinating story!!”

I thought it only fair to give you an update on this story.  Mary Hanlon and I worked on a set of questions (see below) that would cover both design and responsibility.  We wanted to ask questions that have not been asked before that would clearly match the focus of our website.  The design questions are very much focused on the influence of the design process and design choices.  The other questions were focused on the challenges and the impact of manufacturing in the DPRK and the way that the internal realities of the country influenced the manufacturing process and CSR.  We also asked questions that explored the relationship between brands, trade and ‘pariah states.’

I got in touch with Noko Jeans in December.  In particular, I had an email exchange with Jacob Åström and sent him 20 questions about their interesting project.  He promised to send us responses to these questions in a week.  We waited, the responses didn’t come so I sent them a reminder.  After that I received another promise that they will respond at the beginning of 2010.  So we waited and again, no response.  I have emailed Noko jeans repeatedly over the past 2 months requesting a response to the following questions:

  1. Why did you choose jeans?  It has been discussed in the media (BBC, Washington Post) that NoKo Jeans are available in black, and not blue, because blue jeans too closely signal ‘American’ culture. Why is colour more significant than the material (denim) itself?
  2. What design knowledge was disseminated and how?  What other information was shared?
  3. What were some of the challenges you encountered in the process of disseminating your design?
  4. What was the level of government involvement in this project?
  5. Could you take us through the Code of Conduct (CoC) step by step, from “Legal rights” (section 1) to “Inspections, questions, and demands for Pants Provided” (section 7), and explain some of the challenges you encountered along the way. For example, the CoC relies heavily on ‘national laws.’ How were such laws clearly outlined to both you and your workers?
  6. The CoC refers to North Korean laws, understandably, we don’t know much about these legal obligations, could you outline the labour laws and environmental laws your manufacturers are expected to meet?
  7. Did you develop the CoC yourself?  If so, did you seek consultation from any group or organization for help?  If not, how did you decide on the content?
  8. One of the signatories on the CoC signed with multicoloured pen. The other’s signature has been doctored for public viewing. Any thoughts as to why?
  9. What are the differences between manufacturing in China and manufacturing in North Korea?
  10. Was corruption ever an issue during this project?  How did you handle those situations?
  11. Knowing what you know today, is there anything in the CoC you would change or alter if you were to continue production in North Korea?  Is there anything you would have done differently?
  12. You were being monitored while you were monitoring production, how did that affect you, your work and the workers?
  13. Considering the reality of living in North Korea, did the workers understand the difference between your monitoring (protection) and government monitoring (watching)?
  14. What are the major challenges you faced during this process and what made this experience worth the time, energy and effort that you put in?
  15. How do you respond to claims that producing in North Korea is irresponsible?
  16. Will you continue to produce in North Korea?  Why?
  17. Do you think that larger brands should source from so-called ‘pariah states’ like North Korea in order to trigger positive changes in the countries?
  18. How do you think this “trade-plomacy” can trigger change?
  19. What are some of the key lessons coming out of this experience that you would like to share with this community?
  20. Any final comments?

We invite Noko jeans to respond to our questions.  There is no time limit on this interview.  We would love to learn more about your point of view.

As for our readers, we would also love to hear more from you!!  You can let us know what you think in the comments below, on the SA forum or on our facebook fan page.

Made in…where!?!

Friday, December 4, 2009

By nadiralamrad


Yesterday, just before going to bed, I was reading the BBC news website and came across an odd article announcing the release of premium jeans in Sweden.  Normally, something like this wouldn’t be big news but, the title of the article begins with the words “North Korean designer jeans…” !?!

The jeans, named Noko Jeans, are being released today in Sweden and will cost 1,500 Swedish kronor ($220; £132).  The whole adventure started with an email sent to North Korea in 2007 asking about the possibility of shifting some of their production from Southern China.  According to the BBC article:

“North Korea’s biggest garment company turned the idea down, but eventually they struck a deal with the state’s largest mining group, Trade 4, which runs a textile operation on its site.


The email that started it all!

The email that started it all!

So the email started a relationship that resulted in an official diplomatic invitation to North Korea.

What spurred this?

“The reason we chose North Korea was, and is, because we had had an interest in the country for quite some time. North Korea is one of the few blank spots on the map, both figuratively and literally—Noko Jeans was a way to gain access to an otherwise isolated country. A way to learn more about it. There’s little to none infrastructure for producing JEANS since it’s a product they’ve never done before, but they DO have up-to-date factories in the Pyongyang-vicinity (where our factory is!).”

Maybe denim production is lacking in the Hermit Kingdom because the dress code forbids them.  In fact, Noko jeans are only available in black because blue denim is too ‘American.’

Naturally, after I recovered from the shock of this information, I wondered, how can they justify it?  We may not know much about North Korea but we have heard a few things here and there.

I did a quick search and found that a few others have asked the same question.  On their facebook page, Noko Jeans responded to a query about the money trail (where does it go?):

“Noko Jeans

As you’ve written, and we firmly believe, projects like this is a way to influence. Even though we work in a very “micro” context, we believe we bring something to to the table. Outer influences are only a good thing. Be it through detailed CSR/code of conducts agreement, or the fact that we’re physically present throughout ALL our production, our collaborators are – kindly, of course – forced to work in a different way than when, for example, Chinese or South Korean companies produce clothes there.

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. We’re working on how to do this in a proper way, for example in reinvesting in the machinery of the factory — or in person give something back to the people who made the pants.

We WILL find a way to give something back in the right way, but at this point ANY input/suggestions is very much welcome…

Sorry for wall of text :—)

Love ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ , Noko Jeans”

They also have this video on their Vimeo account showing their factory.

This is Our Factory from Noko Jeans on Vimeo.

To tell you the truth, I don’t really know what to think about this so, I emailed Noko jeans earlier today asking about their Code of Conduct and also asking them for an interview.

If you have any questions that you would like me to ask, please let me know.  Stay tuned for an update to this fascinating story!!

Nadira Lamrad

Nadira is the co-founder of Social Alterations. She is currently completing her final year as a PhD Candidate at City University of Hong Kong.

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3 thoughts on “Update// Noko is a No Show!!

  1. Jacob Åström

    Hi Nadira (and the rest of you)!

    I – and we – WILL answer your questions, that is a promise! It has been INCREDIBLY hectic months for us and increasingly hard to keep up with everything, especially considering we still have our day jobs that we have to go to. Your very high on our to-do list; the questions are valid and important, and you will get your questions answered with the respect and time they deserve. Sorry to have missed the (several) deadline(s), we’ll try to get to you as soon as possible.

    Keep up the good work, and best regards,

  2. nadiralamrad Post author

    Hi Jacob and the Noko team! Thank you for your comments. We look forward to your responses and, of course, as soon as we receive them, they will be published on SA as an update to this series. It’s great to know that you read our website. A great honor! Thanks again!


Comments are closed.