Kim, despite his authoritarian rule, cannot ignore the tastes of consumers who now buy products at capitalist-style markets because the country’s socialist public rationing system is broken and its economic woes have worsened during the pandemic.

When the waves wash trash onto the beaches of front-line South Korean islands, Kang Dong Wan can often be found hunting for what he calls his “treasure” — rubbish from North Korea that provides a peek into a place that’s shut down to most outsiders, AP reports.

“This can be very important material because we can learn what products are manufactured in North Korea and what goods people use there,” Kang, 48, a professor at South Korea’s Dong-A University, told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

He was forced to turn to the delicate information-gathering method because COVID-19 has made it much harder for outsiders to find out what’s going on inside North Korea, one of the world’s most cloistered nations even without pandemic border closures.

The variety, amount and increasing sophistication of the trash, he believes, confirms North Korean state media reports that leader Kim Jong Un is pushing for the production of various kinds of consumer goods and a bigger industrial design sector to meet the demands of his people and improve their livelihoods.

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