Shoes and silk: How North Korean factories operate

Raquel R Bacay / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Women wearing floral overalls, aprons, and headscarves stand at stations where silkworm cocoons are being boiled. KT/Raquel Bacay

A trip to North Korea seems almost impossible, let alone a visit to the factories and farms of a nation that has closed itself off from the world’s view. Khmer Times’ Raquel R Bacay, who was on a week-long tour in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, took the rare opportunity to know more about the work systems and conditions of some of the country’s factories and workers.

North Korea’s Ryuwon Footwear Factory, which has been in production for decades, has now been reportedly turned into a model of the country’s footwear industry.

Located 15 minutes away from the downtown area of Pyongyang, the factory produces some 1.5 million pairs of shoes that are distributed for free to orphan children and adults across the country.

It has state-of-the-art laser cutting machines, AutoCAD computers for designers, functioning but somewhat crude-looking sewing machines and other production mechanisms. The factory also has a testing room to check the quality of the football boots it produces.

The shoes’ design concepts are quite rudimentary, but appealing and durable nevertheless, as the country’s officials and other senior leaders who travel overseas bring back samples of various branded shoes. These shoes are then torn apart and studied; indigenous designs are then produced, with local conditions and factors in consideration.

The tour guide stands in front of a display of locally manufactured sports shoes in a factory in Pyongyang. KT/Raquel Bacay

Impressively, the integrated production control room, cutting, sewing, shoe-making and injection-molding shops, sci-tech research and development room, product exhibition room and other parts of the factory were all in clean and good conditions, and were arranged orderly.

The factory was built as the first injection-molded sports shoes producer of the country in November 1988. It produces many varieties of quality and attractive sports shoes which could supposedly match with the world’s famous sports shoe brands.

It is also part of an aggressive campaign for self-sustenance in power and to this end, it has its own 400kW solar power system, solar-powered water heating system and a dispersive geothermal air conditioning system to fully ensure that the facility has the energy it needs to produce quality products.

The solar-powered energy supply system consists over 1,000 solar panels, generating control board, batteries, etc.

The solar water heating system supplies hot water at over 50 degrees Centigrade to cultural and welfare facilities.

What attracts attention in the factory is the dispersive geothermal air-conditioning system, with the heat source of which coming from underground water, waste water and other water resources. The system can keep the indoor temperature at about 20 degrees Centigrade, though the outdoor temperature falls to over 20 degrees below freezing point.

The factory also built a soilless greenhouse where technologies for rainwater collection, methane production based on wastes and drip irrigation were introduced for increased vegetable production.

The only drawback of the shoe factory was the need to import its basic raw material – rubber. The country is currently importing the material from Vietnam, Singapore and some from Malaysia. North Korea has yet to consider getting its supply of rubber from Cambodia, which is also actively looking for new markets for its local products.

Our team’s visit to the shoe factory ended with some serious discussion on the possibilities of importing Cambodian rubber to substitute Vietnamese and Singaporean materials.

Meanwhile, in a visit to another production facility, the same self-reliant concept was on full display. At the Pyongyang Kim Jong-suk Silk Mill, approximately 1,500 workers – mostly women – sort and process silkworm cocoons into silk thread.

A female worker of Ryuwon Footwear Factory operates the production machine.
KT/Raquel Bacay

Women wearing floral overalls, aprons and headscarves stood at stations where silkworm cocoons were being boiled.

The Kim Jong-suk Silk Mill, named after Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s grandmother, processes silk from cocoons sourced from South Pyongyang province. Through a series of processes, the silk thread produces about 200 tons of silk every year, says Mr Song Kwang Chol, deputy chief of production at the silk mill.

Written on a red-and-white sign hanging above the main corridor of the silk mill was a propaganda slogan that reads, “Let us step up the victorious advancement of socialism through self-development!”

Groups of eight to ten women stood before heavy machinery along the processing line, sorting out silkworm cocoons as they were being washed and later boiled.

In another room, women examined sheets of unfinished silk with tweezers, looking for impurities as a glowing tabletop illuminated their faces.

The mill was proud to showcase its “sci-tech centre”, where workers could take classes conducted via an intranet system.

It also boasted a childcare facility where 200 children are enrolled while their mothers work at the factory. It also has a newly built self-contained living quarters for the female workers.

In addition to silk thread, the factory also produces different bedclothes including quilts for winter, summer, spring and autumn, and wedding and bed covers.

Mr Song stressed that the factory is an example of the DPRK’s success in the development of light industries which are highly depended on to produce goods favoured by the North Korean people.

However like the shoe factory, there is no export of any of the products. They are used entirely for domestic production of textile, where silk fabric plays a dominant role in the DPRK’s national costumes.

The factory comes complete with a seven-storey hostel that sits on an almost 10,000-square metre land that holds residential spaces for employees, a wide dining room, party venue, sports and amusement rooms filled with sporting facilities, gymnasium and a huge swimming pool.

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