Editing by Nara Han / Artwork by NK NEWS illustrator Cammy Smithwick
A woman is running by the river in the morning, wearing a tight black tank top and shorts. The Nike running shoes on her feet look great. While she runs, she listens to pop songs on her iPhone. She is blushing and sweating, yet she looks tireless and elegant. This is how I pictured a New Yorker before coming to New York City. Although it is a highly cosmopolitan city and major fashion shows are held here every year, New Yorkers’ fashion is not really colorful. They love black and grey. One interesting thing that I discovered is that most New Yorkers wear black, grey or white coats during the winter. Red, blue or orange coats, which are so popular in South Korea, were almost never seen.
It might surprise you that New York City and North Korean fashion color palettes are very similar! Most North Koreans wear black or dark blue clothes regardless of social status and gender. It is not because they do not like bright colors, but because they are not allowed to wear them. Nothing is more important than maintaining “sameness” to the North Korean government. Regulating people’s outfits helps the government control people’s thoughts and behaviors.
“Money talks, even in North Korea”
One of the most absurd clothing regulations that I remember is that one day, the government announced that all women should wear the black and white Jeogori (저고리), which is the traditional Korean Hanbok – a black loose-fitting, floor-length, empire-waist dress with a white high-necked, long-sleeved top – which covers the female form from neck to wrist to ankle. My mother and my aunts secretly complained that the announcement was so ridiculous and made no sense. At that time, most women had to ride bikes every day for transportation; how could they ride a bike with the floor-length Hanbok? Obviously, most women did not obey the announcement. Officers from the Ministry of Public Security were stationed in every corner and they caught women who did not wear Hanboks. My mother was not caught since she did not know how to ride a bike. My aunt was not so lucky, yet very lucky; she was caught a few times, but each time she was also to bribe the officers to avoid punishment. If she didn’t have the money, she may have been sent to a labor camp. Money talks, even in North Korea.
However, things have changed since then. 1998 is a really significant year for me. As I remember, my hometown became “diverse” in 1998. People started wearing colorful clothing. Despite the fact that we were still suffering from hunger, we eventually realized that we could live without the government’s permission or distribution system. We started doing things that we were not allowed to do. If you go to North Korea now, you would see people wearing clothes of all kinds of hues.
“Lately some young North Koreans have started to wear jean pants and jackets even though it is illegal”
Personally, I got a red coat in 1998, when I was nine years old. I really liked it because that was the first time I got to wear clothing that wasn’t blue or black. I thought it looked so beautiful on me. It was a thin spring coat, but I wore it all the time, even during the winter, until I left North Korea in December. I was trying to bring it to China, but my mother forced me to leave it for my younger sister. I’d like to think that she was really happy wearing that red coat.
Unlike New York City, there are no famous brands in North Korea, but there are so-called “trends” among people. They like to dress differently from the crowds even though the government always tries to control their appearance. Chinese fashion trends have great influences on North Korean people and over 95% of North Korean clothing comes from China. But there are some tricks that the clothing sellers have before selling them to the market.
First, they must take off the tags; second, detach all the English alphabets from Chinese clothes. Since the alphabets represent the enemy, America, North Korean people are not allowed to wear them. Also, they cannot wear jeans because they are one of the typical items of American culture. However, lately some young North Koreans have started to wear jean pants and jackets even though it is illegal. North Korean people try to do their best to evade the law and maximize their freedom.
“In North Korea, one person used to be crazy for black sunglasses. They became part of his identity. You probably know who he is. Yes, it is Kim Jong-Il!”
Another interesting characteristic of New Yorkers is that they like wearing sunglasses all the time, even it is cloudy with no sunlight at all. South Koreans do not wear sunglasses often. They usually wear them when they go to the beaches in summer. In North Korea, one person used to be crazy for black sunglasses. They became part of his identity. You probably know who he is. Yes, it is Kim Jong-Il! He was wearing his dark black sunglasses all the time. I am curious why he liked sunglasses so much. Some South Koreans make fun of him; saying “He drank too much Cognac at night, so he has to wear sunglasses to hide his puffy eyes.” I think it could be a possible reason, but it is much more because he wanted to show off his power to the people. Dark black sunglasses represent political power for North Koreans. I remember many Social Security officers usually wore dark black sunglasses. Even though they never hurt me, they always scared me.
One thing that I have noticed about women in New York is that they love tank tops. Last week it was very hot in New York, so I saw most women wearing tank tops. At first I felt a little uncomfortable looking at them because sometimes I could see their breasts when they bent over. I know it might sound strange to you, but I had never worn tank tops before coming to New York City, not even in South Korea. My American friend strongly recommended that I wear tank tops. She said, “Otherwise, you are going die during summertime!” So I bought two tank tops, but hesitated for a while to wear them in front of people. However, when I put it on, nobody really cared about what I was wearing. Of course, no one looked at me or made strange faces at me.
Obviously, people do not wear either tank tops or short pants in North Korea. Since I used to live in rural areas when I was in China, I usually wore old-fashioned clothes. For example, I wore “short” sleeved shirts that grazed my elbows during the summers. No matter how hot the weather got, I couldn’t even dream of wearing tank tops or short pants. Then when I arrived in South Korea, I found out that most South Korean girls wore hot pants and short skirts during summertime. When I saw their naked legs, I felt embarrassed for them and I told myself, “I am never going to wear those strange clothes, never, ever!” However, six months later, I got used to South Korean fashion style and eventually I started wearing shorts. They looked great on me and I realized that shorts could make me look taller than I really was. I adapted to the new culture quickly.
“Clothes did not really change who I was”
Now I cannot endure the hot and humid summer without tank tops and shorts. They are really simple and convenient, and they look cool and trendy. Wearing them is a big change to me and I just look like a normal South Korean girl; however, clothes did not really change who I was.
I am Ji Woo. I was born in North Korea. I am one of the very fortunate ones. I escaped from the country successfully and now I am studying in New York. My beloved father and younger sister still live in North Korea. I haven’t seen them in over ten years. I cannot hide these facts with my new, colorful, trendy clothes. My heart is always with my family.