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North Korean-made designer jeans were to go on sale over the weekend at a department store in Sweden. But the store changed its mind and says it wants to avoid courting controversy through ties with the closed communist nation. On today's show, we talk with one of the NoKo Jeans entrepreneurs, Jacob Ohlsson who's now left holding the jeans, eleven hundred pairs to be exact.
MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Just ahead the singers in an Indian chamber choir turn troubled pasts into a musical future. But first let's get back to today's Geo Quiz. It seems that this past weekend a Swedish department store was going to start selling jeans made in North Korea. The Noko jeans would have been a rarity in the West ? a product from one of the most closed countries in the world. We say would have because the store called Pub removed the jeans from its shelves just before they were to go on sale. Jacob Ohlsson is one of the three Swedish entrepreneurs who wanted to import Noko jeans. He's in Stockholm. Jacob are you surprised that this department store dropped the plan to sell these jeans?
JACOB OHLSSON: Not that surprised. It's become quite controversial project and I would have of course been happy if they'd removed some of the other products that has been produced in China or Pakistan etcetera.
WERMAN: What is, for you, the controversial part of selling North Korean made jeans in Stockholm?
OHLSSON: Well I mean I don't want to defend North Korea as a country. That's not the point. That's not why we were doing this. I mean the point is to break the isolation. And I think that most people who react negatively they dislike North Korea and therefore the associate us with them and therefore they dislike the jeans. But I mean our project is not a support project. It's a small push in a possible direction for an otherwise isolated state.
WERMAN: So take me back to the first time you sat down with your two entrepreneur friends and you all came up with this idea of making these North Korean jeans. Where did the idea come from?
OHLSSON: Well I mean we actually this is the first thing that happened was that we found this website that marketed North Korean products. And then like amongst all these products that it showcased there ? everything from potato starch to like ship building ? there was jeans. And this was the only product that we could identify ourselves with. So we sent the first e-mail and we didn't expect that we would ever follow through and actually do it but we just wanted to see if we could contact someone inside the country.
WERMAN: And where does your interest in North Korea come from?
OHLSSON: For me myself? I mean it's a dark spot on the map. You can't find any information on it and that was the interest. We wanted to know more.
WERMAN: Tell us where is the factory in North Korea where these jeans are made.
OHLSSON: We stayed at the factory during the whole production process. The factory is central Pyongyang.
WERMAN: Alright well Pyongyang by the way listeners is the answer to our Geo Quiz today. I've got to say it also feels like part of a thrill potentially for consumers in buying these jeans which they now can't buy is to own something sort of forbidden from a rogue state. But that also seems like you're capitalizing on the less than savory situation in North Korea.
OHLSSON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I understand what you're saying and I know that some people react to this. But I mean that's not the consumer that we want. Our consumer that we want is someone who has followed this whole process struggling to get this product. That's the buyer that we are looking for.
WERMAN: And how many pairs of jeans do you have right now in your inventory that you've got to get rid of somehow?
OHLSSON: We have about 1100 we need to sell before December otherwise we'll go bankrupt.
WERMAN: You've got 1100 pairs of North Korean jeans. How will you sell them?
OHLSSON; Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean it's not so much a question about selling them but finding the person that we think should buy the jeans. Someone who understands the complexity of this project and who thinks it's a good cause. Not someone who thinks it's a trendy fashion product. I mean that's completely uninteresting. At least for us.
WERMAN: But you stand by your product right? I mean you're wearing a pair of those jeans right now.
OHLSSON: Yes of course.
WERMAN: How do they feel?
OHLSSON: Comfy. And 1100 means it's a really, really, really small step. But for a country where only like a few hundred foreigners a year come in and out, this is really important. Huge I think.
WERMAN: Jacob Ohlsson one of the three Noko jeans founders speaking with us from Stockholm. Thank you very much.
OHLSSON: Thank you.