Songun Mini-Skirt: Ri Sol-ju, the Moranbong Band, and North Korean Fashion Norms

By | August 09, 2012 | No Comments

Ri Sol-ju, center, with a very expensive handbag | August 7, 2012, via AFP. H/T to Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, International Crisis Group

Songun Mini-Skirt: Ri Sol-ju, the Moranbong Band, and North Korean Fashion Norms 

by Adam Cathcart 

No sooner does the Moranbong Band return to more orthodox clothing styles during their second concert — the commemoration of “victory” in the Korean War — than Ri Sol-ju, the North Korean version of “First Comrade Lady” appears in public with a Dior-style handbag, setting the foreign commentariat again wagging. This essay contends that the first Moranbong Band concert already broke new ground for female clothing and accessory styles in North Korea, and proposes to look at the clothing question again through the prism of that concert.

Textile Fetish |  If state propaganda is to be believed, the Moranbong Band’s first performance was also meant to stimulate production in the textile sector, an important node of which Kim Jong Un and his female companion had visited the day before the ensemble’s premiere in Pyongyang.

Cultural production therefore remains tethered to state-sponsored dreams of material production;  the Morabong performance was also, in a sense, about the promise of improved living standards. Kim Jong Un would not be caught dead in his father’s favorite vinylon jumpsuit – now safely if incongruously enshrined under a bronze trench coat in statue form on Mangyongdae — but he would be truly crazy not to look for any way to promote the North Korean textile industry.

Is it possible for us to interpret the Moranbong Band performance as a kind of promise to the women of Pyongyang and perhaps North Korean society more broadly that a kind of material prosperity is around the corner, and that self-expression along the lines of jewelry, short skirts, and high-heels is considered OK?

Consider the jewelry line-up on the Moranbong singers:

One of the Moranbong Band’s six jewel-bedecked singers at the ensemble’s debut on July 6, 2012 | Image via Korea Central TV

Haute Couture North of Parallel 38th  |  Likewise, The Grand Narrative of women with oppressively plasticized physiques may not be arriving yet in Pyongyang, but changes in fashion are surely underfoot in the DPRK, and have been for some time.  “Strapless dresses,” wrote Isaac Stone Fish in an earlier analysis, are “rare for the capital of a very conservative country where woman cover their shoulders.”  The DailyNK had indeed reported on “clothing decrees” more reminiscent of Iran in 2009.

This North Korean state TV report on new women’s fashions — one cannot take away without giving something, after all — gives a good sense of the styles for Pyongyang women, circa 2009.  Note the total lack of jewelry on the reporters and the women being interviewed.  No earrings, etc.:

Kim Jong-il had also reportedly become upset upon returning from one of his four train trips to China in either 2010 or 2011 that North Korean women were wearing too many T-shirts with Western words on them.  (Thankfully for the Dear Leader’s delicate heart, he was not with me a couple of years back to witness one of his characteristically reedy national compatriots washing dishes in a North Korean restaurant in Beijing a; the DPRK dishboy was draped in a large and wet “DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS” T-shirt. Sadly, that restaurant has now been completely Sinified.)

While thus far in the Kim Jong Un era, the need for policing of fashions and hair styles seems increasingly irrelevant to the grammar of revolutionary etiquette in the cities.  However, none of this presupposes some sudden reluctance of the regime to pull back the slack already granted and snap city dwellers – particularly the youth. After all, before General Ri, there was the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, where Kim Jong Un – quite uniquely after his father’s death – shuffled the leadership and has made stringent efforts to tether allegiance.  A lot of what is going on here with Moranbong and high-tech efforts, references to USB technology, is an effort to get out ahead of youth trends and corral the current generation.

North Korean women use cell phones in Pyongyang, August 2010 | Image by Ray Cunningham, via Flikr

Patriotic Answers to Questions of Change |  A month ago, Isaac Stone Fish made an important observation: “Additionally, for a country so proud of its individuality, it’s strange that the photos of the women and Disney [at the Moranbong Band concert] don’t actually look like North Korea.”  One question broached in the work of B.R. Myers is here completely relevant: once you give up your juche identity, what do you have? A much poorer version of a Northeast Chinese province or a forth-rate South Korea? What is the point of all the North Korean rhetoric about uniqueness if all that people want is  to be just like the rest of the global village?  Isn’t that a slippery slope at best?

North Korea, of course, has answers to these troubling queries.  The state has tried to justify new clothing liberalization by hearkening back to supposed fashion styles of the Koguryo kingdom to make the fashion desires of North Korean women become a product of patriotism rather than “flunkeyism.”  The fact that an apparently harmless policy (does the wearing of earrings really represent some counter-revolutionary tipping point?) needs to be cloaked in the practices of an ancient kingdom from the fourth century shows the lengths to which the regime will go to justify its own uniqueness, when in fact the personal practices of North Korean women indicates the opposite.

Kim Jong Un has neglected to appear with his father’s vinylon jacket in favor of the Mao suit: and state media has ceased reference to his desire to emulate his dad’s fashion (winter jacket and fur hat, gloves at all times). The vinylon jumpsuit will stay firmly on the statue and will not be worn by the Respected General.  Whether or not North Korean women will be able to follow in his heavy “footsteps” and continue going their own way with clothing choices remains an unsettled question.

“Kim Jong Un Confirms His Destiny with a Fur Hat,” via OceansVibe.com

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