For much of the world, it’s a niche product. In North Korea, where winter temperatures are frigid and which cannot produce enough cotton or wool for clothing, the synthetic fibre developed after nylon was glorified as a revolutionary invention.
Known outside North Korea as vinylon, it was christened “vinalon” by founder Kim Il Sung. He ordered it be developed to put clothes on people’s backs.
It’s a story which reveals much about the history of North Korea. The state says the fibre symbolises its self-reliance, but diplomatic records show the project was less successful than Kim hoped – Pyongyang was more dependent on others than it claimed.
Today, North Koreans say no one wears vinalon. That hasn’t stopped Kim’s grandson Kim Jong Un calling for more of the fabric to be produced.
North Korean defectors say vinalon was once a wonder, but today it shows how people manage despite their government. If they obtain vinalon today, they use it to make fishing nets, mops, ropes and other goods which, like many of the basics they need, they trade privately in unregulated markets.
The North Korean government does not provide foreign media with a point of contact in Pyongyang and the state’s delegation to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.