North Koreans seeing a clearer truth thanks to sunglasses company

A designer sunglass company is looking to help information-starved North Koreans see the truth a little more clearly.

European-based Dear Leader sunglasses company has taken a page from the business model of the socially conscious TOMS shoe company and created a business model where a percentage of revenue from every pair of eyewear sold is donated to two independent organizations that help sneak information in and out of the Hermit Kingdom.

The company is the vision of documentarian Johan Stahl who decided he wanted to do more for the people of North Korea after he traveled there twice while working on the film, “The Red Chapel,” a 2010 Sundance Film Festival winner. 

Stahl said that their crew often was presented with a fake view of life in North Korea by the Kim regime during their travels there. Scenes and scenarios of “everyday life” were staged. He says that he was surprised to see how brainwashed the people of North Korea were.

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Dear Leader collaborates with Flash Drives for Freedom, a program conducted under the Human Rights Foundation that provides USB flash drives to North Korean defectors in the south who load them up with western movies, music, news reports and other information before smuggling them back into the north.  (Human Rights Foundation)

“It’s one big, gigantic theater,” Stahl says in an interview with Fox News. “We had to pretend that we were naïve tourists for them to let their guard down.”

He says once that guard was let down, he and his colleagues saw the kindness of everyday North Koreans, even if it was only for a brief glimpse here and there.

“We got to interact with the real North Koreans,” Stahl said. “They were amazing when they let their guard down, but once their ‘dear leader’ was mentioned, they would snap back into line.”

“With all the talk about fake news, it’s North Korea that is the king of fake news.”

- Johan Stahl, Dear Leader Sunglasses

It was those interactions that led Stahl to start his company.

“We want to take that phrase, ‘Dear Leader,’ and make it mean something positive,” he says.

“We hope to have a real impact,” Stahl adds. “With all the talk about fake news, it’s North Korea that is the king of fake news.”

Since the company was started about two years ago, a $10 portion of every sale is donated to two humanitarian organizations that are working to bring truthful information to North Koreans and show the true brutality of the regime to the rest of the world.

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Many of the flash drives are sent back to North Korea with the use of balloons that are launched near the border.  (Human Rights Foundation)

One is magazine and website Rimjin-gang, which was started in 2007 with a network of underground journalists inside North Korea that aims to report on the real day-to-day life within the country free from any government filter. Articles, photos and videos are produced by people within the country who then send it via phones and other means to the magazine’s office in Osaka, Japan.

The other organization is Flash Drives for Freedom, a program conducted under the Human Rights Foundation that provides USB flash drives to North Korean defectors in the south. Those defectors then load them up with western movies, music, news reports and information from sites like Wikipedia. The drives are smuggled back into the north to show those left behind the reality of living under dictatorial rule.

“These groups have dedicated themselves to help those they left behind and they believe that providing this information is key,” Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer with the Human Rights Foundation, tells Fox News. “We are at a point where South Korean pop culture is really popular in the north, but we are also seeing more of a demand for western news and information.” 

“There’s also this increasing demand for documentaries,” Gladstein adds. “Many about certain regimes falling. There’s more of a thirst for this type of information in North Korea.”


Dear Leader founder Johan Stahl decided to start the company after seeing the plight of the North Korean people first hand while fiming a documentary within The Hermit Kingdom.  (Courtesy of Johan Stahl)

The regime strictly prohibits its people from accessing foreign media and other information. Those found with this contraband could face severe punishment or imprisonment. But over the last two decades, foreign information has become a highly coveted commodity within North Korea.

The Human Rights Foundation and Flash Drives for Freedom say that they have assisted in donating 120,000 flash drives, which contained 48 million hours of reading material and 2 million hours of video content, which has been seen by an estimated 1.1 million North Koreans since 2016.

Gladstein says that Dear Leader sunglasses got involved with their efforts around the same time both organizations hooked up at that year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

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“We went there to connect with the creative community,” he recalls. “We met the people from Dear Leader and they wanted to work closely with us.”

“It’s been really inspiring working with them, it shows how companies in the fashion industry can contribute to the greater good,” he adds. “They really are helping North Koreans see better.”

Stahl says that they are looking to expand, including plans to eventually open stores in the U.S.

“We want to get our product out as much as possible to donate as much as possible,” he said.

“This has been a passion product, but we want to take it to the next level.” 

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @perrych