Vinylon is a somewhat unique fabric. The vinylon fiber is still used for a number of niche industrial, agricultural, and fishing uses. It’s light, durable, and resistant to weathering, which is what you’d expect from a fiber that’s basically made from rock and alcohol. But how did it become the default fabric in North Korea?
Vinylon is quite literally made from rock, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming the national fiber of North Korea, where it’s used for the majority of textiles, outstripping fibers such as cotton or nylon, which are only produced in small amounts in North Korea. Other than clothing, vinylon is also used for shoes, ropes, and quilt wadding.
Globally, it’s a significant market, estimated at over half a billion dollars, with steady growth over the past few years, though in the grand scheme of things, it’s still a very niche product. For clothing, vinylon is practically not in use anymore. But not in North Korea. In North Korea, vinylon is the material, widely used for clothes, shoes, and other necessities. Here’s how this happened.
How Vinylon was Invented and Produced
The invention of Vinylon dates back to 1939, a time when the world was exploring various fibers for clothing. For instance, just two years earlier, nylon had been invented, and with it, came affordable stockings and a whole new type of fashion.
Vinylon was invented in Japan, at Kyoto University but trial production didn’t start until 1954, as Japan was still struggling to recover after World War II. Initially, the fiber was appealing because it’s sturdy and resilient, especially to water damage. It was also fairly easy to produce compared to other synthetic materials, but the fiber is rough and not exactly pleasant to touch. Perhaps the most well-known vinylon product in the world today is a backpack produced by Swedish manufacturer Fjällräven, although the fiber would likely be more familiar to fishermen, as it’s used for fishing nets.
But while the fabric received some attention in Japan, it was Korea that truly popularized vinylon.
A fabric made from stone
The team that worked on vinylon also featured a Korean chemist named Ri Sung-gi.
It was a very troubling time for Korea and Japan. The Second Sino-Japanese War, between Japan and China had started in 1937, Korea was little more than a Japanese colony and was integrated into the Japanese war effort.
It wasn’t until 1945 that Korea was liberated from Japan. At the time, Sung-gi was working in Kyoto University and was trying to develop a factory in South Korea — but the country wasn’t interested. So when hostilities broke out between North and South Korea, Sung-gi was given the opportunity to defect to North Korea — and he did.
Sung-gi became one of the leading scientists in North Korea, being involved in the country’s chemical and nuclear programs. The country likened him to Marie Curie. But his most impactful work was still on vinylon.
North Korea was undergoing a major transition that would mark its future for decades to come: it wanted to develop a self-sufficient economy that wouldn’t rely on any help from its communist allied states. So they developed the First Seven-Year Economic Development Plan, which focused on technological innovations and cultural revolution.
This crystallized an ideology that dominates the country to this day: Juche. Juche is essentially a variant of Marxism–Leninism in which the country has to be fully autonomous and independent of any other countries. In theory, Juche doesn’t mean total isolation, but in practice, that’s pretty much what it led to. But back to vinylon!
North Korea was struggling to become completely independent and saw vinylon as one of the key inventions that could establish its autonomy. So they started making everything from it.
The Juche Fiber — How Vinylon Became Popular in North Korea
North Korea saw vinylon as a way to break free of any need for textile imports. It was a very practical problem: the country had insufficient cotton and the Soviets couldn’t help them. So they needed an alternative, and they found one in vinylon.
Vinylon isn’t exactly cheap to produce compared to other alternatives, and it’s hard to dye — but it’s durable, and you can build it from resources that North Korea has available. So it was deemed good enough. Vinylon became the “Juche Fiber,” a symbol of the country’s autonomy, and was used in propaganda ever since. Its name was also changed in North Korea to vinalon.
Initially, Japanese scientists processed the fiber using oil. But North Korea has no oil, so Ri found a new way to derive the fiber. His invention starts by mixing limestone and coal, producing carbide. From that, acetylene is produced. Acetylene is a flammable and unstable gas, but with a rigorous, careful process, it can be mixed with acetic acid, polymerized, and ultimately turned into something that can be spun into fibers. Yes, chemistry is pretty neat, and Sung-gi found an ingenious way to use it to produce fibers. From salt-like white vinylon crystals, you end up with soft(ish) fibers. You start with rocks, and you create a fiber.
The invention fueled an industry almost overnight.
With a massive appeal to nationalism and using the Juche fiber as a symbol of North Korean power, the North Korean government mobilized its citizens and created a massive factory they called Vinylon City. In 1961, the factory was opened. It had over 3,000 employees that worked in shifts, producing massive amounts of vinalon. Its inventor also became famous and a symbol of propaganda.
“It is true that vinalon was a great example to showcase that North Korea, a former colony, was very successful in catching up with the advanced industrial nations at the time,” a study on the life of Sung-gi notes. “More importantly, however, the fact that Ri was an inventor of vinalon and North Korea succeeded in the industrial production of vinalon first among the socialist bloc countries functioned as important factors with regard to constructing a technonationalistic narrative in North Korea.”
It wasn’t long until North Koreans started calling North Koreans called vinalon “the King of Fibres.” Phrases like “vinalon speed” started showing in propaganda and featured in cartoons to teach children how strong and autonomous the country was.
According to defectors who fled to South Korea, vinalon really is resilient, but after a few very successful years, the factory was starting to show its limits. Petroleum was becoming cheaper, but North Korea didn’t want to import any. The country’s doctrine was that it needed to be completely independent, so they couldn’t use anything from the outside. Power usage also became a problem. The factory was cold and unpleasant for the workers. Some got sick, some even worse. But Vinylon City became the pride of North Korea, touted as a factory built from scratch without any foreign assistance.
Apparently, the factory hit a ceiling in the early 1970s. In 1973, a high-ranking North Korean official told Romania’s communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu that North Korea was struggling to increase its production of vinalon. North Korea decided to build a second vinalon factory in 1983, which was supposed to be the biggest factory in the country and one of the largest in the world. But despite huge investments, it was never finalized.
Still, the fiber was used to produce everything from shoes and socks to shirts, pants, jackets, and everything else. It was the default fabric until the fall of the Soviet Union.
The rise and fall and rise (?) of vinalon
For all its propaganda of complete autonomy, North Korea was never fully isolated from external powers. It was still receiving some support from the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, North Korea lost its Soviet funding. This would eventually be the catalyst for one of the greatest tragedies in modern history, but before that happened, vinalon took a different hit.
As the Soviets were less able to maintain relations with North Korea, China stepped in. With its influence and support, China brought in some trade — and one of the key trade products were fibers and clothes. But even as alternatives came in, vinalon remained a priority for North Korea. Part of that was propaganda — the need for the rulers to show that the country is still autonomous and all that — but another part of that was that the company was state-controlled. North Korea had no real market, no supply and demand, and everything was decided and implemented in a planned economy. So as long as the rulers wanted to keep producing vinalon, it was being produced.
Now without Soviet support, North Korea started spiraling. Its food production was already in trouble without Soviet help. Its planned economy was rigid and couldn’t adapt — and when a series of floods and bad crops hit, things went very bad very fast.
In 1994, hit by severe floods, the vinalon production facility didn’t receive coal and stopped producing fibers. But by then, few people cared about vinalon. There was no work and no food. Famine killed up to 3 million North Koreans by some estimates (out of a population of around 22 million).
“People ripped machines into metal parts from the vinalon factory, smuggled and sold them … some of them were publicly executed. … Production lines stopped rolling … workers starved to death,” Jeong Jin-hwa, who defected to the South in 1999, told Reuters.
North Koreans were forced to ask for external help, which eventually stemmed the damage, but the country was irreversibly impacted and had essentially become an isolated dictatorship with little contact with the outside world.
The country’s economy had collapsed, and there was no fuel to power Vinylon city, so it shut down, and it stayed shut down until 2010.
North Koreans started making other types of fabrics, but there was still one market for vinalon: the army. According to defectors quoted by Reuters, some military officers were still interested in vinalon because they thought it looked cool, although it was pretty impractical.
“Many ranking officers wear them…. but they are not good for a war,” one defector told Reuters. “If war breaks out lots of sparks and bullets go back and forth…. Cotton tends to melt and vanish but vinalon burns you because it sticks to your skin,” the defector said said.
But by 2000, few people still wore vinalon. A South Korean entrepreneur tried to import North Korean vinalon, but there was simply no market for it. Compared to modern standards, vinalon clothes were heavy and rigid and not pleasant to touch. The idea was dropped in a year.
But not everyone gave up on the idea.
In 2010, Kim Jong Il reopened the February 8 Vinalon Complex. Just one year later, he died suddenly on his private train. His son, Kim Jong Un, took over. He didn’t initially push forth with vinalon, but he also didn’t seem to interfere with the small black market for army vinylon.
Seven years later, in 2017, for his New Year’s speech, Kim Jong Un expressed a plan to revamp the vinalon complex. Satellite imagery showed activity at the facility, but it’s not clear that the facility is used on textiles.
By piecing together satellite information, along with documents and a testimony from a North Korean official who defected, it seems that the facility could actually be used to produce fuel for North Korea’s long-range missiles. Meanwhile, reports are coming out that North Korea’s textile factories are actually used to produce ‘Made in China’ products, with China taking advantage of the cheaper labor force.
“We take orders from all over the world,” said one Korean-Chinese businessman in Dandong, the Chinese border city where the majority of North Korea trade passes through.
Textiles are still a big industry in North Korea; they were the country’s second-biggest export after coal and other minerals in 2016, totalling $752 million, according to data from the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA). Total exports from North Korea were $2.82 billion (for comparison, South Korean exports are on the scale of over $600 billion).
A weird history for a weird material
Outside of North Korea, there still are uses for vinylon. It’s nowhere near other popular fabrics like cotton or nylon, but it has its place, and it’s a growing market. But vinylon’s story is essentially intertwined with that of North Korea
Vinylon, a material made from coal and limestone, was initially meant to help North Korea create clothes autonomously without needing external help, but it became intertwined with nationalism and propaganda. It’s an unlikely story for what would essentially become the national fabric of a country isolated from the world.
The country’s textile industry is still one of the few significant exports for the country, but whether or not vinylon is still significant is hard to say. Basically, it’s not clear what kind of textiles North Korea is producing, and it’s not clear whether vinylon is playing any significant role in the country today. Obviously, the country isn’t open about its situation, and there’s only so much we can guess.
Vinylon may yet make a comeback — but hopefuly, if it makes one, it will be in better and healthier circumstances.