Juche couture – North Korea and the fabric of the future

The economic sanctions placed on North Korea have forced the People’s Republic to develop novel ways to sidestep western technology. Step forward Vinalon, a fabric made from the unlikely source materials of anthracite and limestone? Do rocks make for natural, luxuriant fibres? Not particularly, but the raw materials are plentiful on the Korean peninsula. So why has the rest of the world failed to succumb to Vinalon’s mineral charms?

The list of crimes attributed to Jang Song Thaek were designed to leave absolutely no doubt; Kim Jong-un’s uncle deserved to be executed as a traitor to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Jang Song Thaek's trial

Jang was accused of “selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices”, being “wined and dined at back parlours of deluxe restaurants”, taking drugs and, perhaps most heinously, spending the DPRK’s precious reserves of foreign currency in casinos.

After being labelled by state media as a “traitor for all ages” and a “wicked political careerist”, it was announced that Jang had been sentenced to death, with: “the decision … immediately executed”.

Amongst the many other charges made of the “despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog” was his leadership of a group that opposed the development of ‘juche’ industries (one of the tenants of the national philosophy of juche is self-reliance and, in such industries it is akin to autarky). Of these, the need for the fertilizer and iron industries is clear enough. But one industry in particular, vinalon, required a bit more explanation.

According to Wikipedia: “Vinylon (also Vinalon) is a synthetic fiber produced from polyvinyl alcohol, using anthracite and limestone as raw materials”. In a quote attributed to Kim Jong Il, vinalon was championed as being a domestic solution to the issue of clothing the people of the DPRK: “vinalon and fertilizer are very important for solving the issues of people’s food and clothing”.

Kim Jung-Il visiting the vinalon factory  in Hungnam North Korea

The Vinalon factory was brought back online in 2010, earning a special visit from Kim Jong Il on 7 February 2010. The news report of the visit noted that the dear leader was:

“greatly pleased to watch for a long while vinalon being churned out from a spinning machine in an endless stream, he said with emotion that it has become possible to supply more vinalon fabric to the people and realize the lifelong wish of President Kim Il Sung at last.”

You can see how happy Kim Jong Il was on the website Kim Jong Il Looking At Things – specifically this page – Kim Jong Il looking at vinalon.

Whilst such a report might raise questions as to the scope of the DPRK leadership’s wishes, it does confirm the importance of a domestically produce synthetic fibre. Why, then, is vinalon less successful outside of the DPRK than within? The Economist reports:

“It has long baffled North Korea’s leaders that vinalon, a wonderful textile their country makes from anthracite and limestone, does not dominate world markets—it is, indeed, used in no other country.

the entrance of the February 8 Vinalon Complex in Hungnam North Korea By Raymond K. Cunningham, Jr. (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Invented by a Korean who defected to the North in 1950, it is a triumph of juche, the official creed of self-reliance. But it has lost out to other products such as nylon. Foreigners, ever bent on doing North Korea down, claim this is because vinalon is stiff, resistant to dyes, of lower quality and more expensive.”

These disadvantages are echoed in the Wikipedia article on the fabric. Whilst it is noted that vinalon is resistant to heat and chemicals (somewhat unsurprising in a textile made from rock), the fabric has “numerous disadvantages”, including that “it is stiff, uncomfortable” (again, somewhat unsurprising in a textile made from rock) “shiny, prone to shrinking, and difficult to dye”.

Kim Jung-il inspects bags of vinalon

Barbara Demick’s incredible book, Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, looked at a garment factory where uniforms were “made out of Vinalon, a stiff, shiny synthetic material unique to North Korea”. She goes on to make the following comments on the official use of vinalon:

“New clothes were dispensed by your work unit or school, often on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, reinforcing his image as the source of all good things. Everything was pretty much standard issue. Only vinyl or canvas shoes were provided, as leather ones were a tremendous luxury and only people with some outside source of income could afford them. The clothes came out of garment factories like Mrs Song’s.

The favored fabric was Vinalon, which didn’t hold dye very well, so there was a limited palette: drab indigo for factory workers uniforms, black or gray for office workers. Red was reserved for the scarves that children wore around their necks until the age of thirteen as part of their obligatory membership in the Young Pioneers.”

Still interested in the juche fibre? Hy-Sang Lee’s North Korea: A Strange Socialist Fortress has far more background and detail on the development and use of the fabric.

Kudos to Mark W for both the excellent subject and the puntastic