Fashion in North Korea
Fashion can embody the cultural, social, economic and even political spirit of a country. In this way, fashion can act as an instrument to examine the characteristics that make up the nation’s current state and identity.
North Korean Fashion’s History and its Implications
In the strict socialist environment adopted by North Korea, manufacturing is determined by the rationing system and central planning. Thus, styles of clothing were uniform and simple, designed to emphasize efficiency and comfort required for physical labor.
However, North Korean fashion experienced a transition after the 1960’s with the repatriation of North Korean residents in Japan. The North’s fashion industry was also greatly influenced by South Korean attires first seen in the North-South Red Cross conference of the early 1960’s. Formal attires were transformed from being limited to dull patterns, to adopting diverse colors and styles.
With globalization, goods were imported into North Korea through smuggling routes in China. From early 1990’s, denim pants, mini-skirts and other Western trends became popular among North Korea’s youth demographic. However, strict regulations were enforced by the government who feared ideological indiscipline caused by the ‘capitalist invasion’. In such a way, fashion became a political tool capable of overturning a regime.
According to Kim Jung-Hee (alias), a defector who first came to South Korea in 2009: “In North Korea, even emotions and hobbies must embody the spirit of the Kim leadership. Thus, citizens cannot help but become in-sync with the collective consciousness. Appearances that greatly differ from the masses are accused of being corrupt, and become subjected to public criticism.”
Thus, it is fair to categorize North Korea’s original ‘fashion’ as a symbolic mechanism of controlling individual mindsets and the population’s sense of solidarity.
The State of North Korean Fashion, and Government Regulations
In North Korea, fashion apparels such as skinny jeans, laced skirts and tights have become popular among the young female demographic. However, such fashion gets scrutinized under strict regulations, as it is considered a statement in support of the capitalist culture. Surveillance systems often directly target apparels made in the U.S. or South Korea.
Further, while fashion fads are often initiated by celebrities in South Korea, North Korean trends are set by the members of the leadership, such as Kim Jung Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju. For example, when Kim Jung Il’s jacket became a fad among the population, the government enforced regulations to prevent the use of jackets as work clothes.
Regulations on apparels are conducted through surveillance squads, targeting people wearing tight or revealing clothes, or those with English prints and patterns. Individuals caught under the regulation are put in front of their colleagues and/or peers at workplaces and schools to be publicly criticized. They are also reprimanded by their community leaders, and forced to undergo training.
Then, it is important to note reasons for the regime’s fear of fashion fads. North Korean government’s concern denotes an ideological factor: with the inflow of capitalist products, the North Korean population is becoming conscious of the outside world’s demands and freedom, thereby fueling the flame of reforms.
Despite strict regulations, the movement to seek something new among the youth demographic continues to remain active. According to networks of informants, in order to avoid the regime’s apparel surveillance, the youth would cut out branded tags from imported clothes, thereby challenging the system of control.