Slip into Noko jeans: North Korean fashion in Sweden

HELLO IT’S Noko Jeans! from Noko Jeans on Vimeo.

Capitalism fever has crossed the DMZ and wandered into North Korea. The reclusive communist state has launched a line of designer jeans, which are set to go on sale at a fashionable Stockholm department store on Friday. Drop $215 a pop to sport “Noko” brand jeans and show that you can get your hands on an unusual and hard-to-find brand. Make sure everyone sees the label: “Made in North Korea.” So, when you’re cruising a PUB store in Sweden, saunter past Guess and Levi’s, and drop your ass into North Korea.

Noko is actually a Swedish company, and the founders spent more than a year trying to work out some arrangements with factory operators in North Korea. Communications were obviously an issue, as was trying to figure out how to do capitalist business in a communist place. Jacob Astrom, one of the founders, told Reuters, “There is a political gap, there is a mental gap, and there is an economic gap,” continuing, “all contacts with the country are difficult and remain so to this day.”

The founders of Noko got the idea to launch a project in North Korea out of curiosity, and Astrom said that the “reason we did this was to come closer to a country that was very difficult to get into contact with.” Hell, the country certainly isn’t known as a fashion center.

Sweden was a natural fit for pushing into the country that does its best to keep outsiders outside. It is only one of seven countries with an embassy in North Korea. So, this would seem like a great starting point for building relationships … but would overlook the countless challenges that exist even after you get a foot in the door.

The first company, the largest textile manufacturer in the country, turned Noko down, but the Swedes found some luck with Trade 4, the largest mining company in North Korea (mining: file this one under “only in North Korea”). Trade 4 also runs a small textile operation.

The effort was complicated that the folks at Noko wanted a North Korean factory to make 1,100 pairs of something it had never produced before. The first pair of jeans to roll off the line was the first ever for the country. Yet, this was just the start. Yet, the North Korean team was nothing if not helpful: a trade representative offered to find Astrom a pirated version of free software Adobe Acrobat to help him read files.

A trip to North Korea this past summer drove home the need for micromanagement at the factory. But, that didn’t stop the jeans from shipping. They hit shelves in Sweden on December 4, 2009, though you can order them from Noko’s website. Just don’t look for them in Pyongyang: it seems jeans are counterrevolutionary.

South by Southeast: Welcome to Seoul

Seoul is not in Southeast Asia. But for a budget traveler like myself headed on to Southeast Asia, this South Korean capital has provided a perfect introduction to my trip. First-time Asian visitors “headed Southeast” often start in Tokyo, the neon Asian mega-capital of food, shopping and nightlife. Yet Seoul matches the urban amenities of Japan’s uber-city pound-for-pound, all at a fraction of the price. When you add in Seoul’s welcoming and friendly locals, surprising natural beauty and top-notch culinary scene, you’ve got the makings of a emerging traveler’s hotspot.

So if you’re planning a visit to Southeast Asia, skip that Tokyo layover and arrange a stopover in Seoul. Not only does South Korean carrier Korean Air offer convenient Asia connections from Chicago, New York, Dallas, Washington DC and Atlanta, it’s also a great place to get over your jetlag and pickup last-minute travel supplies before heading onwards. Whether you’re just passing through or end up hanging out stay a few days, you’ll find yourself surprised and delighted with just how much Seoul has to offer.

Over the past few days here in Seoul, I’ve found plenty of reasons to justify sticking around. Ready to investigate this tourist-friendly, bustling Korean capital? Let’s take a closer look at Seoul and review the basics of your visit? Click below for more.

Getting Around

Most travelers arrive in Seoul through Incheon International Airport, located an hour west of the city. Getting downtown is easy enough. Budget-minded travelers should grab an “Aiport Limousine” bus ($10) or the Airport Railroad Express (also about $10), both of which connect to Seoul’s excellent metro system. In a little over an hour you’ll arive in Seoul.

To get around, you’re going to want to use Seoul’s fantastic metro system. As one of the largest in the world it will take you just about anywhere in the city and prices are reasonable, costing around $1-2 per ride. Signage is in both Korean and English to aid with navigation.

City Layout

Seoul itself is divided into two distinct sections, located north and south of the Han River. On the north is Seoul’s historic Jongno-gu neighborhood, home to many royal palaces, along with nearby Insadong, ground zero for the Seoul art galleries and antiques. To the west of Jongno-Gu is Hongdae, Seoul’s happening student district, bursting with cafes, bars and eateries. Nearby Itaewon is known as the home of Seoul’s expats, including large numbers of U.S. Military personnel and loads of restaurants and bars. On the south side of the Han River is ritzy Gangnam-gu, a more upscale area full of high-end hotels and plenty of shopping.

Where to Sleep

Seoul has numerous lodging options, ranging from the luxurious to the thrifty. If you’re looking to make your dollar stretch the furthest, check out some of Seoul’s many clean, modern guesthouses. In addition to NAMU Guesthouse is well-located near Seoul’s trendy Hongdae student area. Other good options include anHouse and Bebop Guesthouse, both located not far from Hongdae in Mapo-Gu. Expect to pay between $10-$30/night for a guesthouse and much more than that for a nice high-end hotel.

What to Do

Seoul has a surprising amount to offer for budget travelers. With exchange rate currently trading at 1150 Won to the Dollar, you’ll find attractions, food, drinks and souvenirs are amazingly cheap compared to wallet-hungry Asian cities like Tokyo. Some top attractions include:

  • Gyeongbokgung – one of Seoul’s biggest royal palaces, Gyeongbokgung was first contstructed in 1394. Though the original was heavily damaged during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, it’s been immaculately restored. For about $3, visitors can spend their time strolling the beautiful grounds and investigating the palace’s lavish living quarters. The National Folk Museum of Korea is also nearby.
  • Bukhansan National Park – the greater Seoul metropolitan area boasts surprising natural beauty. About an hour north on the metro is Bukhansan National Park, a popular hiking spot and home to a number of serene Buddhist temples. During autumn Korean hikers flock to Bukhansan to experience beautiful fall colors, have a picnic and toast their ascent of the park’s three peaks with Soju, a Korean rice liquor. Entrance is free.
  • Seoul Markets – though frequently overshadowed by Japanese and Chinese cuisine, the spicy flavors of Korean food will have any traveler’s mouth watering. Perhaps the best way to experience Seoul’s food scene is through its many food markets. Spots like the Noryangin Fish Market, Gwangjang Market and Gyeongdong Herbal Market offer a good sampling of all that Korean cuisine has to offer.
  • Korean DMZ – many visitors to Seoul take a daytrip to the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, the buffer zone that runs between North and South Korea. Visitors can stop at the Joint Security Area at Panmunjeom, where North Korean border guards stand sentry, as well as several incursion tunnels where North Korean forces tried to sneak into South Korea. Cost varies from $50-$100 depending on what sights are included.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Another war-torn golf course?

It’s becoming pretty clear that the U.S. government equates golf with peace, freedom and stability. The best way to “ruin a good walk” is on its way to Baghdad’s “Green Zone,” which is what the comparatively safe part of the city is called. The Joint Contracting Command Iraq, Mission Support Division is trying to find the equipment necessary to construct a driving range on Phoenix Base in this stressful part of the world. Since I’ve never met relaxed golfer, this could only serve to escalate anxiety levels in an already scary place.

As you know, Green Zone golf would not be the first instance of our exporting a game that leads to high spending, frustration and marital discord. The United States has already plopped a one-hole golf course in the Korean DMZ. The only question that remains: will the new Iraqi course snatch the “most dangerous golf course in the world” title from Panmunjom?

All the joking aside, anything that makes our troops happier is okay with me. Hell, give ’em a cigar to smoke while the smack golf balls past checkpoints.

[Via Washington Post, scroll to the bottom of the page when you get there]

Destination on the edge: golf on the DMZ

The small golf course in Panmunjom is often called the most dangerous in the world. Nestled between North and South Korea – which are technically still at war – sending a ball off the fairway means that it probably won’t be retrieved.

Welcome to the strangest place on earth. Panmunjom is the heavily militarized “truce” village straddling the Military Demarcation Line that cuts down the middle of the Korean peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone. The most famous image from this corner of the world, of course, is that of soldiers squaring off across from each other, each rigid and ready for the worst. Not far from this scene of perpetual anxiety, worries turn to backswings and short games.

Camp Bonifas, the U.S. military installation in Panmunjom, is home to a one-hole golf course, mostly for the benefit of service members stationed in this dangerous spot for a year at a time. The 192-yard par three “course” is free to anyone interested in playing but is generally unavailable to outsiders. Once you’re on Camp Bonifas, according to Erica (who prefers to keep her last name private), it’s pretty easy to find “The World’s Most Dangerous Golf Course,” as the locals call it. There isn’t much of anything on this army post, and there are only so many places you can go.

“It’s a fairly flat one-hole course,” Erica recalls, “so it serves as a novelty, not as somewhere to play an actual game.” The location, however, is what makes it unusual. “There isn’t anywhere else in the world that one can golf while gazing across the world’s most armed border. It’s surreal to say the least.”

I can see why she feels this way. As you approach the golf course, the sign that welcomes you announces with no equivocation: “DANGER! DO NOT RETRIEVE BALLS FROM THE ROUGH LIVE MINEFIELDS.” Never have the implications of shanking a drive been so severe!

If you’re up in Panmunjom for the DMZ tour, don’t plan to squeeze in a few rounds, however short they may be. But, if you’re getting ready to spend 12 months of your life in the Joint Security Area (well, 11 months, as you’ll have 30 days of leave), bring a putter and a nine iron. That’s all you’ll need.

[Photo via Nagyman on Flickr]