The following is the full text of an interview I did with Kati Chitracorn of Business of Fashion magazine, interspersed with running tweets and commentary focusing on the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League and youth culture generally in North Korea.
Incidentally, I keep waiting for a reporter to do a big feature on the role of the Socialist Youth League in construction of an epic hydropower project near the Chinese border, since that has figured prominently in DPRK state media, but it might be a while…
Q. Some recent reports say that schools are increasingly becoming preferred places for trading – have you heard about this? How accurate is this? I’ve heard a bit about the Jangmadang generation. While they don’t all share the same characteristics, what are the key things they want? And what percent of the overall population do they account for?
A. I’m aware that schools and universities are sites of information exchange and file sharing (mainly via USBs or thumb drives) among young people. This is obviously something that the government is very keen to reduce or eliminate; this is where organizations like the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League come in to play, bringing a kind of mass discipline. North Korea is, demographically speaking, a young country with a rising population of youth; median age is about 32. (Further info here, which can be projected forward.)
Q. One of the biggest influences on the Jangmadang generation is South Korea’s Hallyu. Could you talk a bit about this, and how South Korea uses this as ‘propaganda?’
A. I am surprised at how little the South Korean government does to promote the idea of hallyu in North Korea itself; I think this could be because the North Korean state has been almost predominantly vicious in its revulsion of any spreading of South Korean pop music, for instance via loudspeakers along the DMZ. I would be sceptical of any figures provided by studies of the rates of South Korean media penetration in North Korea, which tend to be high, based on anecdotal data or incomplete surveys of North Korean defectors. It goes without saying that South Korean soap operas in particular are dangerous to the North Korean state, as they indicate South Korea’s obvious wealth and living standard advantage over the North.
Q. North Korea is also notorious for its unwritten rules on personal style. British fashion magazine Dazed & Confused published photos in August showing North Korean women holding fake designer bags such as Dior and Prada. How accurate are these photos? Is there local demand for luxury goods? Has this changed over the past few years? What are locals interested in now? It’s been said that new trends begin, not in the capital of Pyongyang, but in places neigbouring China and port cities like Chongjin and North Hamgyoung? Do the ‘ruling elite’ taking shopping trips abroad or are there certain ways to obtain luxury goods? (Secret VPN?) I’d also like to hear your thoughts on the Morangbong girl band. What has their impact been on the country, including fashion trends, if any?
A. Kim Jong-un’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, has become a kind of style icon among North Korean women, and she has a Dior handbag (or a facsimile of one). If a piece of clothing or an accessory exists in northeast China, it probably exists in North Korea, minus T-shirts with English messages and sports jerseys. The government has recognized a demand for such goods and has made overt moves to provide them from state factories. Kim Jong-un has shown a lot of attention to such moves, not only sponsoring a girl band (the Moranbong Band) to show off the country’s accessories in performance, but in attending to such everyday aspects of shoe design for women in factories in Wonsan, a large city on the East coast. – This is a modulation from the Kim Jong-il period, which was marked as more austere, but it also shows that the regime is trying to spread the material advantages of more updated fashion into the provinces – in other words, it is not only a foreign flood of goods coming in over the Chinese border, but the North Korean state competing in those very border provinces. Also, the North Korean female workers in their 20s who come back from China legally, to my knowledge, do not bring in a large number of clothes from abroad, since their ability to shop freely in China is severely restricted, like their movements in general. However, they are very aware of the fashions in China and among South Koreans, since those are their customers. Considering that these girls are certainly daughters of the elite, this indicates severe limitations to the spread of foreign fashion and culture in North Korea generally.
Q. Today, outside data and information is penetrating North Korea’s borders more than ever before. What are your thoughts in terms of social changes in the country? What are your predictions for the next five years?
A. Social changes will continue gradually, but unless Kim Jong-un opens up the country to the internet and enhances the ability of North Koreans to move more freely into and out of China, things will remain largely as they have been. Today, most North Koreans are unable to access foreign culture without peril to their political and legal lives, and have to make due with whatever minor moves toward liberalization that the state makes, be that opening markets, allowing in more Chinese consumer goods, or starting a “girl band” whose main emphasis is on the country’s missile program and how great North Korea is – in other words, there is no North Korean punk or alternative culture which will rise up in the coming few years, even as we have to recognize the tremendous creativity and saavy of the population both with what they have and with what they could have.