U.S. sanctions mean that any citizen or business wanting to buy stuff from North Korea has to send a letter to the U.S. government asking for special permission. A few months back, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request, asking for those letters.
Our request was granted: We recently received a packet of 18 letters from Americans who wanted to do business with the most isolated nation on the planet. We've posted all of the letters online.
We also managed to track down some of the people who wrote the letters. Here's what we learned:
Donald Sundman, president of Mystic Stamp Co. in Camden, N.Y., asked for permission to buy postage stamps from North Korea. Some North Korean stamps show pictures of dogs. There's at least one that, weirdly, has a picture of Princess Diana. Another, less weirdly, has a picture of a unified Korean peninsula.
Sundman told me he wanted to get the stamps because, basically, they're hard to get — which makes them appealing for some collectors.
This is one theme in the requests to do business with North Korea: People don't want North Korean stuff because it's cheap or well-made; people want the stuff because it's hard to get. They want special permission to buy stuff because the sanctions make it hard to buy stuff.
Patrick Forster, CFO of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Tennessee, asked for permission to buy a pair of $220 jeans that were made in North Korea. He told me he thought they'd make a nice birthday present for his wife, whose father escaped from North Korea during the war. The government granted his request.
"She's only worn them one time," he said. "They didn't fit quite right."
The jeans are called NoKo jeans, and they're the brainchild of a few young Swedish guys who, on a whim, managed to get 1,100 pairs of jeans made in North Korea — despite the fact that jeans are seen as a symbol of imperialism in the country.
"We didn't use the word 'jeans' during the production," Tor Kallstigen told me. "The company was called Pants Provided."
One guy wanted to import North Korean beer. I couldn't track him down, but I did find a guy who had tasted it. Josh Thomas, a graphic designer in Hong Kong, told me it tastes just like Anchor Steam. He said North Korea bought a brewery in the U.K. and brought it over to North Korea.
I don't know whether the request to import North Korean beer was granted, but I've never seen North Korean beer in this country. Thomas says he tried to bring some back to Hong Kong with him. The bottles weren't very well-made, and when the barometric pressure dropped, they burst.
For More: Listen to our show, The North Korea Files.