Fashion and Politics, The Collision of Two Worlds that Birthed a Market in North Korea

Hardly any inside of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea know what truly lies outside their world which guards itself from foreign eyes. With hardly any communication and extremely limited trade and tight sanctions, it’s a wonder how markets still operate. Markets that could bring voluntary interactions between cooperating individuals, form friendships, exchange goods and services for profit. Markets that can uplift the citizens of North Korea and give them more autonomy to spend their money on miscellaneous items to fulfill or sustain their economic freedoms.

Yet slowly, things are beginning to change.
Once Kim Jong Un ascended to the North Korean Throne, its “aristocracy” and its subjects began to witness its country begin to loosen the chains upon their isolated state and slowly, cautiously, open its doors to the outside world. And thus, the development of new markets began, and in existing black markets, citizens managing to produce their own businesses without the watchful eye of the government to sell and distribute goods started to pick up speed. With these new developments taking place, the fashion world began to extend its hand to North Korean citizens, or if not all of its citizens, then it most definitely has kept close contact with the North Korean “aristocracy” residing in Pyongyang.

The UN sanctions imposed on the North Korean government forbids the sale of luxury goods, though Pyongyang has managed to find ways to circle around them, sometimes with foreign help (mostly from the Chinese and other various foreign sources across Europe or elsewhere) to buy and sell under their name, for example, or smuggled into the country, black market, loopholes. However they get here, once these luxury goods ship in, their journey ends when they hit the North Korean markets. There, you’ll find Chanel, Zara, and the like proudly floating around in the capital department stores awaiting to be purchased like you’d see in Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
Kim Jong Un’s rise to power after the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011 saw a rise of watches pouring in, the cosmetics to grace the pretty faces of the women of Pyongyang, and the handbags which made their way directly to North Korea’s First Lady, Ri Sol-Ju, who has sported her now infamous Dior handbag which reportedly costs around $1,600 in South Korea and said to be 16 times more than what the average North Korean makes.

Indeed, once Kim Jong Un stepped onto the world stage, so too, did his wife make her own name heard round the fashion and political worlds when she was announced as the wife of the North Korean leader during the opening of a new amusement park in 2012 sporting an emerald green and black dress, ending weeks of speculation on who this mystery woman alongside Kim Jong Un was, but also attracting fashion attention who have likened her as a Duchess Kate of Pyongyang. With her fashion sense noted in the books, so, too, did the demand for luxury goods increase as North Korean women flocked to the stores to follow the Western-style trends that their new First Lady likes to wear.

Despite the dress code, North Korea is slowly allowing the personal fashion expressions of its citizens (or to citizens that can afford it, ahem) to spring forth, according to the KDB Future Strategy Research Institute, a local think tank that has watched the fashion market come to life in North Korea, flooded with these new luxury goods being traded, where they also stated that manufacturers are beginning to take orders for clothes “popularized by fashion shows or from displays.” As 24 year old former Pyongyang “brat pack” member Lee Seo-hyeon states, brands like Uniqlo, Zara and H&M were adored by “Pyonghattan’s” rich kids. “All my friends lived abroad and everyone would bring stuff like this back,” she says.
Those like the First Lady and the women of North Korea who have come forth are not only making personal choices, they are making personal statements with their fashion choices, expressing their individuality through their clothes, their jewels, their cosmetics, those fashion treasures from imports which doubled over the 2012-2015 periods that reached $1.73m in 2015, the think tank stated.
Alongside these shops, the Jangmadang, or “marketplace”, hosts a new generation of North Koreans. This new market generation, instead of relying on the socialist government, find solace in a market economy, inspired by foreign influences in fashion and music from South Korean pop culture, eager to take part in the fashion culture oozing from these celebrities. Reportedly Kim Jong Un even loosened jangmadang restrictions set up by his father, allowing the illegal black market to flourish, with schools becoming new placed for market exchanges. As a result, department stores had to lower government-mandated prices thanks to the new market economy putting pressure on them.

The citizens unfortunately had some run-ins into an actual government-ran “fashion police” keeping an eye out for citizens too trendy for their own good. But as more citizens buy and wear these new imported goods from the outside world, the pesky fashion police’s grip on power against its trendy citizens is beginning to diminish as the dress code slowly relaxes. They’re powerless to stop the fashion revolution that’s gaining momentum.

BUT… the question of not how these luxury goods end up in the hands of North Koreans or to their First Lady gets to me. It’s the motives behind it. Is North Korea tolerating the fashion revolution and the new fashion market for propaganda purposes to look “modern” and ward off attention for any rights abuses? Or has Kim Jong Un finally cracked and decided to upgrade his fashion game and the fashion game of his citizens (or the wealthy ones) because he caught a glimpse of himself for the first time through a smuggled mirror and thought “Sweet JUCHE, why has nobody told me these Chairman Mao funeral clothes made me look fat(er)?” Or both? Who is to say.

The international condemnation behind these goods being provided to the North Koreans directly or indirectly because their government is bad is a “meh” subject for me. Merely because the likes of some of these luxury brands and fashion magazines still cater to some wealthy clients and friends that are a part of governments that are known for their horrendous track record of rights violations like Saudi Arabia for instance, when the doors of Louis Vuitton in Paris opened their doors at 2 in the morning for Saudi Arabia’s Princess Maha who went on a scandalous $20 million dollar shopping spree. Or how the likes of Vogue took down their post praising the Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad, condemning the Assad government for rights violations but simultaneously gushed over Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco’s fashion sense while the Moroccan kingdom punishes any who dare to criticize the Moroccan royal family with jail time, or them praising Sheikha Mozah of Qatar despite Qatar’s penal code giving out a maximum of five years in prison for anyone that criticizes the royals and condones flogging. So it wouldn’t surprise me if these brands secretly open their markets to wealthy North Koreans to avoid negative media attention since some of these magazines and fashion houses praise some glamorous royals from corrupt governments. Some say money talks in this world. Who is to say. If it does, it sure does an awful lot of talking.

As someone who carefully watches the fashion and political worlds, it’s mind blowing to see North Koreans, amidst the sanctions and uptight government, bypass useless regulations treading on their personal and economic freedoms and spend the money they have (or what’s left of it) and defy (to a limit) old fashion standards to embrace what goods they can get a hold of through legal or illegal markets.

Thanks to the new market that has been created, we can see North Koreans maintaining and expressing their individuality (with some state limits) through their fashion choices and have some spending power to purchase the goods and services being exchanged in this fabulous market that gives North Koreans a glimpse of the wonders of the Fashion World outside their borders. Whether the North Korean government is ready or not, the fashion revolution has begun, planting its seeds across the land and growing a generation of trendy but defiant people.