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Swedish store pulls plug on N. Korean jeans

Swedish store pulls plug on N. Korean jeans

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Associated Press

STOCKHOLM (AP) -- A Stockholm department store on Saturday removed a new line of North Korean-made designer jeans from its shelves, saying it wants to avoid courting controversy through ties with the isolated communist nation.

The PUB department store's management had not been informed that the label would be carried in its space, and pulled the plug when it became aware of it, said Rene Stephansen, the store's director.

"For us this is not a question of Noko Jeans -- this is a question about a political issue that PUB doesn't want to be associated with," he said. "This is not the forum for the discussion" of North Korea.

The Noko Jeans line is the brainchild of three Swedish entrepreneurs who hoped their label would help break North Korea's isolation through increased trade with the West. The jeans come only in black, partly because blue jeans are associated with the United States and are stigmatized in North Korea.

The jeans were to be sold at Aplace, a retail space within the department store. Stephansen said he had informed the shop's owner of the decision just before the planned launch.

A spokesman for Aplace said the decision was "a bit cowardly" but said that he understood the department store's point of view.

"It's a real shame," Kalle Tollmar said. "But we will continue to sell them on our Web site and Noko Jeans will continue to sell them on theirs."

North Korea, led with absolute authority by leader Kim Jong Il, is one of the most closed countries in the world. The average North Korean is prohibited from accessing outside TV, radio or Internet, and only the elite are able to leave the country. Foreigners -- and foreign goods -- are largely seen as a threat by the communist regime.

Jeans have been banned in the country for years because they are considered a symbol of U.S. imperialism, said Choi Eun-suk, a professor of North Korean legal affairs at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.

In 2005, the regime also urged the country's women to refrain from wearing trousers, saying Western clothing dampen the revolutionary spirit and blur national pride.

Jacob Astrom, one of the three Noko Jeans founders, said he regretted the decision, but said it would be welcome if it leads to scrutiny of conditions in the developing world for workers making the brands it carries.

"Of course it's a pity; it was exciting to be at a space like PUB, but if this means that they're embarking on a larger initiative to look over the brands they have, then we think it's a good thing," he said.

He said neither he nor his two partners had been contacted by PUB yet.

"This is not a support project (for Kim Jong Il), but is a way for us to get closer to the country and, in a controversial fashion, shake this isolation up a bit."

The trio is currently looking at new retail space, he said.

The Noko Jeans team had initially planned to start its online sale on Friday, but Astrom said that had been postponed because of technical problems with the Web site. The sale is scheduled to start next week, he said.

The jeans come in two models, the slim-fit "Kara" and the loose-fit "Oke" and the price tag is 1,500 kronor ($220). They are cut, made and trimmed by factory workers in North Korea's capital Pyongyang, while material, buttons and zippers are supplied from other countries.

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