Reuters filed a fascinating story today on a football boot factory in China staffed by workers from the mysterious Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. A small force of 20 North Koreans hand sew boots at a temporary factory in the Chinese town Dandong funded by South Korean money, and they have big dreams of getting their boutique boots on Lionel Messi.
At a temporary factory in a village on the edge of a bustling city that serves as a bridge between China and impoverished, isolated North Korea, 20 North Koreans hand sew football boots and dream of taking on the world.
The factory, overseen by managers sporting badges showing North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, have sold almost 10,000 pairs of boots at $100 a piece since it started full-scale operations in July, half of them to South Korea.
The North Korean workers, per the Reuters observers, are intensely loyal to the North Korean regime and are well-paid, relatively speaking. As opposed to many North Koreans working abroad, they are allowed to keep most of what they make, rather than the money being sent directly into PRK coffers. They’re paid about $200 a month.
North Korea’s payment for providing the labor force? Boots.
North Korea itself gets 100 pairs of boots a month from the factory as its share of payment, rather than being paid in cash.
“Boots can be made by machines but hand-sewn ones can be made to match individual preferences and they’re more comfortable,” said Chung Nam-chul, a veteran shoemaker.
“We play football in our boots to test them and pick good ones,” added Chung as he nailed down soles on a pair he was working on.
Workers get some of the comforts of home.
“We can see our television channels. And we also sing our songs about our Marshal, our Marshal Kim Jong-un,” said seamstress Kwon Ok-kyung, referring to the North Korean leader who took power in 2011 after the death of his father.
Kwon works eight hours a day, five days a week at her sewing machine. Workers are allowed to meet their families in a North Korea city across a border river once a month and take bags of gifts home.
The odd pairing of South Korean money and North Korean labor originates from the South Korean city of Inchoen. The local professional club in Incheon wears boots made at the factory (the story does not identify the team explicitly, but it’s probably safe to assume it’s Incheon United). The original agreement had the factory located in Pyongyang, but an inevitable increase in tensions between North and South led to the relocation across the border to China, with the help of a $415,000 cash infusion from Incheon.
The size of the factory and the obscurity of its origins don’t keep North Korean officials imagining a future where North Korean-made boots are on every players’ feet. Including the best player.
The small boot factory will not make much of a difference to the North Korean economy, but that doesn’t stop its workers from dreaming big.
“It would be really good if Messi came here and wore our shoes,” said Oh Sung-dong, one of the North Korean managers.
Argentine football star Lionel Messi plays for Barcelona and is sponsored by German giant Adidas whose boots he wears.
“When thousands of workers produce our football boots in Pyongyang, they can dominate the world,” said Joo Chul-soo, an official from North Korea’s National Economic Cooperation Federation.
Read the full story here.