A clean street in Pyongyang.
South Koreans spends money to discard trash, North Koreans earn money by collecting it – and imported trash is at a premium
In South Korea, the number of trash cans on the streets is decreasing. This phenomenon became evident when an effort to cut down on the discarding of mixed trash led to people having to pay for separate bin bags. In North Korea, not counting the trash can ‘sculptures’ built long ago in public parks, the only places where you can throw away trash is in apartment complexes. As in South Korea, there are almost no trash cans in the street for public use. However, the reason for the paucity of trash cans on the streets of the two Koreas are very different indeed.
Foreigners who visit Pyongyang are often surprised by how free the streets are of litter. This is not because North Koreans are more conscious of their environment, nor because the state enforces fines against littering or conducts anti-litter campaigns. In North Korea, there is not enough to throw away; and even when something is thrown out, there is fierce competition to reclaim it.
Nevertheless, North Korea’s street children (kkotjebi) – who add to their diet by picking at spoiled food that has been thrown out – come out to the streets and marketplaces where there are no trash cans, rather than scavenging in the apartment dumpsters. Even in the apartment dumpsters, there is no reusable trash to be found due to North Korea’s poverty. All that’s left is burnt coal.
The most popular type of trash for recycling is bottles. Five glass bottles can be traded for one bottle of alcohol, and therefore few people throw away their empty bottles. Plastic bottles are also in demand, although they too are difficult to find. There is so much demand for plastic bottles that empty plastic bottles are imported from China to be sold. They are used to store food, or filled with hot water to be used as portable heating devices in the winter months.
Cigarette butts tossed onto the street, a nuisance in many countries, are precious in North Korea. Tobacco from several cigarette butts can be rolled up in cigarette paper and smoked anew. The cotton from the butts are used as filling for bedding. In addition, there are the usual suspects: pieces of scrap metal can be sold for cash, while paper can be used as kindling.
Above all, scrap metal, paper and plastic are the kinds of litter that students are required to submit at school on a regular basis, so students snap up such trash from the streets whenever they find it. Effectively, all North Korean students are rag-and-bone men. There are even cases where if a large piece of scrap metal has been found, an argument will ensue between those in the vicinity and a fist-fight will erupt. In the eyes of North Koreans, a piece of scrap metal discarded on the street is as good as a wad of cash.
While in countries like South Korea, residents must spend money to discard their trash, North Koreans earn money by collecting it. This is not just on the individual level, as the North Korean state too earns foreign currency by taking in foreign trash.
Park, a North Korean exile from Chongjin, told us the following story: “In Chongjin, everyone knows about ‘French trash’. Among the people, it was also called ‘the treasure trove of life.’ Before this, there were many families in Chongjin who did not even have bowls to collect water in. In trash sent from France however, there were many containers for storing liquid manure, which we would sterilize before using as kitchen utensils. The containers which had holes in them would be burnt as cooking fuel. If we were lucky, we could find used cosmetics. Sometimes, there were even new containers. As for plastic bags, we would sell them on the black market if there were any in decent condition. The people thought it would be wonderful if the French would continue to send shipments of trash for disposal in North Korea, and felt very grateful for it.”
Ironically, the adjective used most frequently by the North Korean state to refer to perceived enemies is ‘trash-like’.