“In the beginning, when I didn’t know anything about sewing, it was hard, but now it isn’t hard anymore ... There’s no problem now,” she said.
One of the supervisors of the visit stopped Kwon talking when she was asked how it felt to be sent abroad to work.
Because of the risk of defections, North Korean workers sent abroad are generally loyal to the regime and the ruling family. Their families back home act as guarantees that they will come back, according to defectors in the South.
Far from being slave laborers, many of the tens of thousands of North Koreans working abroad seek those jobs as a way of earning hard currency, defectors say.
The boot factory was originally built in Pyongyang on land provided by the North Korean government. However, most economic ties were cut after the South accused the North of sinking one of its naval vessels in 2010.
The factory moved to Dandong with a US$415,000 cash injection from the South Korean city of Incheon, whose soccer team wears its boots.
With the North’s economy in tatters and imports outstripping exports by US$3.3 billion, according to 2010 data from the IMF, North Korea has been forced into China’s arms, exporting much of its mineral wealth to its big, now-prosperous neighbor.
North Korea’s official ideology is based on economic self-reliance, but in reality it has been unable to feed its people for decades and its plants and equipment lie idle because of a lack of electricity.
The small boot factory will not make much of a difference to the North Korean economy, but that doesn’t stop its workers from dreaming big.
“It would be really good if Messi came here and wore our shoes,” said Oh Sung-dong, one of the North Korean managers.
Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi plays for Barcelona and is sponsored by German giant Adidas whose boots he wears.
“When thousands of workers produce our soccer boots in Pyongyang, they can dominate the world,” said Joo Chul-soo, an official from North Korea’s National Economic Cooperation Federation.