A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 5/17/2013. 

By Kim Young-jin

In February, reports surfaced about North Korea that, for a change, focused on the relatively mundane. The regime, it seemed, had handed down a list of state-sanctioned “socialist” hairstyles for its citizens.

The reports circulated at a time of high interest in the country after it carried out its third nuclear test. Media pointed to the list as an example of the regime’s often bizarre control over its people. “The cuts…are a statement about North Korea’s values,” MSN News declared, “which apparently don’t include spiky hair.” Posters depicting the hairstyles reportedly hang in salons across the country.

Photographs of the list went viral, raising questions about fashion norms in the isolated state. Are men really forbidden to have locks more than five centimeters long? Do women wear these mullet-like dos? Are clothing regulations similarly strict?

Visitors to the North, however, say fashion norms are evolving in urban areas, despite the fact the country remains overwhelmingly poor. In Pyongyang, hairdos are becoming similar to those in the South. Platform heels are in. Women carry handbags with designer labels (though they may be knockoffs) and accent their outfits with chic scarves. Ri Sol-ju, the young wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, rocks polka-dot dresses.

The trends are attributed in large part to trade with China. But watchers say they are also a sign of an increasingly consumerist society in the North, where market forces have quietly engendered a rudimentary middle class; as well an increased flow of information from the outside. As with much else in the country, what the changes mean remains unclear. But some believe the seeds of a more varied culture have been planted.

“People can now flash their handbags or suits,” said Bernhard Seliger, resident representative of the Hanns-Seidel-Foundation Korea, a German group with engagement projects in North Korea. “It points to a greater inequality ― which might not be a bad thing. If you come from such a uniform society (you can) see that greater variety is possible.”

Andrea Lee, CEO of U.S.-based travel agency Uri Tours, said when she first visited the North in 2003 people wore a lot of neutral clothing.

“Now during the summers in Pyongyang, I see women holding brightly-colored frilly sun umbrellas. I see children wearing colorfully-striped knee-high socks and different colored coats. I see girls with permed hair and trendy side-swept bangs,” she said. For men, smartly-tailored suits are popular, and children are frequently seen with accessories featuring Mickey Mouse, seen as a symbol of the West.

Park Chan-mo, the Korean-American chancellor of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which is funded by outside groups, concurred. “In Pyongyang, the young people are really similar to South Koreans,” he said during a recent visit to the South. “The change is mostly since Kim Jong-un took over. In the shopping center, we can see (young people) wearing all types of clothes.”

Gradual change

Authoritarian regimes have historically tried to control fashion, including that of late South Korean president Park Chung-hee, which banned long hair for men and miniskirts for women.

The North has made various efforts to set grooming and dress standards in a bid to encourage a “socialist lifestyle” that favors conservative clothing. In 1986, late ruler Kim Jong-il issued a decree urging women to wear traditional skirts and jackets.

Denim is said to be banned because it symbolizes the culture of the United States, a country which it demonizes as an “imperialist aggressor.” Defectors say those breaking the rules are sometimes reported to the authorities.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University, says the regime’s attitude toward fashion has relaxed slightly, even under Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011. The changes, however, have been reactive, forced by the reality at the grassroots level.

“Generally, the government’s ability (and, perhaps, willingness) to control the daily life of the common folks has decreased in recent years,” the scholar said.

The North has reluctantly accepted a market system born of necessity during a 1990s famine that killed hundreds of thousands. After attempts to squelch the system, the regime has allowed for state-sanctioned markets and turned a blind eye to informal ones scattered around the country. The markets are a source of clothes, mainly from China.

Chinese and South Korean popular culture, mostly in the form of smuggled DVDs, has found its way across the border, too.

“Thanks to increasing exposure to the outside world, the North Korean public is better aware of what is fashionable in other parts of Asia ㅡ especially in China,” Lankov said.

Last year, the regime unveiled the Moranbong Band, an all-female musical group wearing miniskirts and high-heels and performing Western songs. At the same time, Ri Sol-ju made her public debut and was photographed in designer clothes and toting label purses. Observers speculated the moves signaled the regime’s endorsement of the changes afoot, and an attempt by Kim Jong-un to consolidate popular support.

Disposable wealth

In urban areas such as Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Wonsan, trinkets hang from mobile phones, which are becoming more common in the country that has severely restricted the communication of its citizens.

The fashions, as well as the popularity of the phones (which are restricted to domestic calls) point to greater buying power among North Koreans after the markets opened up greater economic opportunities.

Signals such as the debuts of Ri Sol-ju and the Moranbong Band fell in line with pronouncements by Kim Jong-un that the regime would focus on the economy and livelihoods. His ascension to power was accompanied by a revamping of Pyongyang that included new apartments and leisure and shopping facilities. Such changes, however, have been overshadowed by the North’s belligerent attitude following the latest round of international sanctions over its nuclear program.

The moves are “statements about where the North Korean economy is and where the North Korean people aspire to be,” said Yonsei University assistant professor John Delury. “There is something more like a middle class consumer society than an austere, undifferentiated socialist style.”

“These folks are the base of a more 21st-century, connected North Korea, with people who are open to make some money in the way most East Asians are, rather than to be a constant source of security tension in the region,” he added.

But the emerging middle class raises important questions for the economy, chronically plagued by inflation and lack of production. A supply-demand gap, coupled with the sanctioned regime’s inability to bring in enough materials, is driving up prices, watchers say. Citizens, distrustful of the North Korean won after a disastrous 2009 currency reform, have reportedly sought Chinese yuan, U.S. dollars and euros to insulate for economic instability.

Express yourself?

Experts believe that interest in diverse fashions on the grassroots level is difficult for the regime to roll back due its need to maintain loyalty in its people. They point out that many wearing modern fashions in Pyongyang are likely among the elite and hold political sway.

Seliger of the Hanns-Seidel-Foundation said the regime might be simply allowing the populace to “catch up” with the leadership style of Kim Jong-un, who embraces aspects of Western culture, such as American basketball.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean he is a champion of modernity, but rather (the relaxation reflects) what he is accustomed to and he can live with. It remains to be seen if it was a one-time catch up or a policy or attitude that says, ‘We have to accept what comes from the world in a way.'”

While difficult to predict how far the fashion norms will evolve, the experts say they do serve to accent socioeconomic and cultural diversification.

Seliger said the most important aspect may be an increased desire to be different from the rest. “With styles, they can express a certain personality,” he said, “which is different from a uniform appearance governing fashion.”