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North Korean defector reveals F&B packaging transformation in communist state

#North Korean defector reveals F&B packaging transformation in communist state

24 Oct 2023 — North Korea’s packaging industry is undergoing a rapid transformation, which could potentially point toward significant broader social developments, according to leading South Korean media channel Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). 

Na Min-hee, a North Korean defector, has had first hand experience of the secretive nation’s F&B packaging over decades. She told MBC reporter Cha Mi-yeon that packaging style and design has “changed a lot” since her youth in the country’s capital Pyongyang. 

“In the past, there was no such thing as a brand, so much so that you could tell it was a North Korean snack just by looking at it. So, I just put a piece of paper on it and asked what kind of cookie it was,” she says.

“It was like just writing the name of the snack and putting it in a plastic bag. But if you look at it now, it’s all very colorful and branded. Even in the case of packaging, it was just transparent plastic. It was too tough and the tearing part wasn’t working well, so I ended up just poking holes in it with my fingers and tearing it apart.” 

North Korea has gone through phases of severe famine since its inception in 1948. F&B protection has always been of high importance to maintain shelf life and reduce starvation. 

Dr. Jeon Young-seon of the Institute for the Humanities and Unification at Konkuk University, South Korea, also highlights recent improvements in product protection. 

New packaging designs could be part of an effort to boost foreign trade.“In the past, there were quite a few cases where the lid did not close properly because the box was deformed. In fact, you can feel that the design aspect has improved a lot,” she says. 

Form follows function 
Along with improvements in strength and protection, product design is also changing, according to Young-seon.

“First of all, the material itself has improved a bit. In the past, it was easy for plastic to tear like this, and in the case of plastic cups, there were quite a few cases where they broke if you held them just a little too hard,” she says.

“From what I’ve seen, there has never been a packaging technique like this before, such as wrapping it so thickly on top.”

“And when it comes to mints, the fonts are different depending on the type of snack, and you can see that they are packaged so cutely and colorfully, and you can see them, and there is also a storage date, and how much protein and carbohydrates are in this snack, and things like that. If you see it marked, it seems that the production line itself for packaging has completely changed.”

New technologies
New design elements must be accompanied by printing technology that can actually implement them, notes Young-seon. 

“There must be technology that allows silk printing on a surface other than paper, such as iron. There must also be technology that ensures that the print adheres well for a long time and reduces the difference from the original.” 

“This also has a barcode and QR code. So, I can say that this change in design can be seen as a general change or development in industrial design in North Korea.” 

Last year, North Korean leader Chairman Kim Jong-un, was said to have directly designed new packaging formats that were displayed at the The Pyongyang City Industrial Art Exhibition. 

Looking outward
Young-seon implies the development of packaging design, particularly for snack packaging, is important for the country’s foreign relations. 

“The fact that it is an important factor in purchasing a product is a trend that has emerged recently, and with the Kim Jong-un regime, they say that once domestic products are used, they should be edible, pretty and delicious.”

“So, the domestic market was secured first, and the snack market that had been imported from abroad was expanded. As it replaces and comes out a little further, these design elements are being emphasized a lot, targeting international exports.” 

By Louis Gore-Langton

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