An acquaintance of mine, a North Korean refugee currently living in South Korea, told me how, in the early 2000s, she broke a bone. The incident happened one afternoon when she was on the way home. A few streets away from her house she encountered a patrol of regular police and militia, and she instantly knew she was in trouble because she had done something seriously improper. She had no choice but to run, and while trying to get away from her pursuers she broke a bone in her feet. But she still escaped the hand of law.
What was the crime she had committed? She was wearing trousers while walking the streets of a major North Korean city.
This story might seem strange. As every visitor to North Korea can testify, there are a great number of women clad in trousers on the streets of major North Korean cities. Nonetheless, a theoretical ban on women wearing trousers has existed since the late 1970s. Its enforcement has, however, been rather patchy at best.
My acquaintance did not blame her pursuers for the above-mentioned incident, instead she blamed herself. She knew that patrols of professional trouser hunters could be encountered only in certain parts of the city and only at certain times of the day, and she believes she was foolhardy to venture into such a high-risk area dressed in such an “indecent” way. For her, the entire incident was a bit like going to a snake-infested forest lightly dressed and then getting bitten.
PROPER DRESS AND BEHAVIOR
Like many other rules (perhaps, nearly all rules which really matter in North Korea), official dress code restrictions have never been made public. The official line is that good, patriotic citizens in North Korea spontaneously dress and behave in a proper manner, avoiding such heresies as wearing trousers (if female) purely thanks to their good ideological upbringing.
Be that as it may, we actually know something of this ban, which has been in existence since at least the late 1970s (but perhaps longer). Women are allowed to wear trousers at work. This is the reason why trousers remain nearly universal among men and women in the countryside, where everyone can plausibly justify wearing them. However, since 1970s, women have always been required to dress properly once they venture from the havoc and noise of their workplaces.
‘Denim is seen as the embodiment of U.S. imperialism, and wearing such subversive clothes is completely out of the question, both for men and women’
If caught wearing trousers in a major city, a woman would face a few hours of investigation followed by the somewhat humiliating experience of being subject to a criticism session at her workplace or people’s group (North Korea’s equivalent of a neighborhood association). If such sessions happen frequently, it may lead to some additional problems at work like, say, delays in a promotion.
Some types of trousers are seen as more dangerous than others. Blue jeans, for example, are a complete taboo. Denim is seen as the embodiment of U.S. imperialism, and wearing such subversive clothes is completely out of the question, both for men and women. Even when the “trousers ban” was not really enforced, blue jeans remained almost unthinkable. Tight trousers are seen as ideologically less corrupting than blue jeans, but are still generally frowned upon as being excessively liberal. The authorities usually permit modest and ideologically correct bagginess in the trouser-leg. Thus, older women usually can get away with wearing the latter outside of the workplace.
Over the last 20 years, such principles have become largely theoretical, as most tourists would testify. From time to time, the authorities have initiated campaigns against indecent dress, but such campaigns have usually proved to be short-lived and their scale has also been very limited. Most women have made sure to know when and where patrols of local anti-trouser shock brigades were, and had little trouble avoiding such areas. They also knew that such patrols were likely to disappear from the streets of their city within a month or so.
There have been reports that Kim Jong Un has finally lifted the old and clearly anachronistic ban, but these reports appear to be wrong since very recently, in late 2013, another short-term anti-trousers campaign was reportedly conducted in Pyongyang (after few years when women could wear this indecent dress with impunity).
‘…until 1992, bicycles were completely banned from the streets of Pyongyang’
Another peculiar ban, also applied exclusively to women, is about riding bicycles. Theoretically, women are not supposed to ride bicycles in cities.
Generally speaking, the North Korean authorities have always had an uneasy relationship with bicycles. Most countries have embraced bicycles with great gusto, for many decades, bicycles were the major form of personal transport in South Korea, China and Japan, and remain so in Vietnam (even with the introduction of motorbikes). North Korea was less enthusiastic: until 1992, bicycles were completely banned from the streets of Pyongyang. This was a time when bans were actually well-enforced, hence bicycles were usually nowhere to be seen on the streets of the revolutionary capital.
It is unknown why the North Korean authorities were so opposed to cycling, but the most likely explanation seems to be that they deliberately wanted to project an image of an advanced, sophisticated city, and were afraid that unruly crowds of cyclists would tarnish this image (as if the ghostly streets of 1980s Pyongyang, broad and completely devoid of traffic, were good for the image of the capital).
Bicycles were allowed in Pyongyang after 1992 and became an instant success. In a curious twist, cyclists must register their vehicle and display an official number plate at the front of their vehicle. Additionally, they must have a license, issued only to those who have passed an exam.
From 1995 though, women were banned from riding bicycles. The ban was reportedly revoked in 2012 but reinstated in early 2013 (its enforcement still remains patchy at best).
‘…it was said that women were genetically incapable of handling traffic … and were therefore too dangerous to be let loose on the streets as cyclists’
It seems that it was Kim Jong Il himself who issued this fateful order. There are competing explanations and rumors as to why. One rumor has it that the late Dear Leader, not known for his indifference to female beauty, decided that the sight of an attractive woman on a bicycle was too suggestive and therefore damaging to public morality. According to yet another explanation, it was said that women were genetically incapable of handling traffic (women are normally not issued driving licenses in North Korea) and were therefore too dangerous to be let loose on the streets as cyclists. The fatal accident with a high-level official’s daughter obviously was the last drop, prompting Kim Jong Il to introduce this ban.
Fortunately for North Korean women, this ban has also largely been ignored (even in downtown Pyongyang, let alone in the countryside). This is good news indeed, because otherwise a great number of women would have trouble getting to work: Pyongyang is a rather large city in which the public transportation system leaves much to be desired.
It is easy to mock such things, presenting these nonsensical bans as yet another case of North Korean “madness” and “irrationality.” However, one should not forget about a small incident that occurred in the United States as recently as 1960 when Lois Rabinowitz, a 18-year-old secretary, went to a traffic court (to pay a fine of her boss) only to be sent home by the presiding judge for the misdemeanor of wearing slacks. We should also not forget that in South Korea of the 1970s, wearing a mini-skirt could get a woman fined. So, the North Korean government is not the only authority of the world who make sure those under its control know how to dress decently.
Picture: Eric Lafforgue