Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week Sarah from Los Angeles asks:
Do North Korean women wear makeup? Where do they shop their cosmetics?
Women in South Korea and some other countries make sure they have perfect makeup on before they step out of their houses. Many times it seems to me that having perfect makeup on is the top priority of many South Korean women.
North Korean women do not put on makeup to that extent, but they do enjoy taking care of themselves, including putting on makeup to enhance their appearances, just like in other countries.
…when you’re in school, until the time you’re in university, you’re never allowed to wear makeup
Basically, there are two reasons why North Korean women would ever wear makeup. First, they may just want to look prettier, like most other women in this world. Second, as it is a patriarchal society, it is thought by many that women should wear makeup out of consideration for others. Most women in North Korea start wearing makeup when they graduate from high school. However, when you’re in school, until the time you’re in university, you’re never allowed to wear makeup.
I remember when I was about 15 or 16, I put on makeup with my friends and went to school with it on. As we were going through the tumultuous time of adolescence, we feared almost nothing. We proudly strode into our classroom. But we were soon caught by our teacher, and as punishment we had to stay behind to clean up the classroom and were only allowed to go home after writing a letter of apology.
I still remember very vividly what our teacher told us as we were on our way home: “After you graduate from high school, I would never care whether you put extra makeup on.”
After that incident, we never wore makeup to school ever again. Well, of course I had my eyebrows waxed and put on some powder, but I never used eyeliner or mascara because I would’ve been caught right away.
In South Korea, there are tons of cosmetics stores and almost every street has one. But in North Korea, street vendors sell cosmetics at the market. I don’t know how women bought them in the 1990s. But since the beginning of the 2000s, the market was the place where women got cosmetics since markets in North Korea have almost everything that is found in any other country. Surely, cosmetics from South Korea were the most popular and expensive of all.
In South Korea, people seem to buy anything imported from another country and always want to buy the things that are more expensive. It was exactly the same in North Korea. Some cosmetics were not of distinctively better quality than Chinese products, but they were still sold at a higher price just because they were made in South Korea. They were so popular that I still remember the exact brand names. It was called “Man with Flowers” from VOV. When I came to South Korea, I was shocked to find out that it was the cheapest kind, because if you used this product in North Korea it meant that you were wealthy. Everyone wanted to have it.
IMPORTED OR DOMESTIC
Because these South Korean cosmetics were smuggled through China, heavy government restrictions existed. Therefore, people hid them from the authorities and sold them at the black market and the price went through the roof for these South Korean cosmetics. Though they were very expensive, they sold out immediately because every woman wanted to have them. At first, it was usually foundation and powders that were seen at the market. But with the increase in demand eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara and lipstick could easily be found in North Korean markets. Because they were so expensive, only a few people could afford to own one of every kind.
Still, even if you owned only one of these, people would still envy you for that. My mom almost always used VOV and I tried it for myself when Mom wasn’t home and was always pleased with the quality. When you put on Chinese or North Korean powder, it darkens your skin tone. But I liked VOV because it made my skin shine and look natural, as if I hadn’t put any makeup on. After all, as long as you have money, you can get any cosmetic on earth.
Most North Koreans traditionally used skin toner and lotion only. But from 2000 North Korea began to produce its own cosmetics line called “You and I” in its Hamhung factory. This cosmetics line was created to be supplied to high-ranking government officials, as well as to be exported. They added a line of nutrition cream to skin toner and lotion. As they were cosmetics made mostly of natural ingredients with hardly any chemicals, they were very expensive. At a time when you could buy other cosmetics for $5-10, these cost $250-300.
…most people thought it was too much work to wear eyeliner, so many resorted to getting their eyeliner tattooed
But they were still so popular. Since my mom knew someone at the factory and could acquire one quickly, I was lucky enough to try this popular line of cosmetics for myself. I was satisfied with the quality of these cosmetics and I loved using them. Now that I think about it, it isn’t surprising that my skin got better after using them. I used to apply skin toner and lotion only to my skin before then. I began to add nutrition skin as well. No wonder my skin got so much better!
But most people thought it was too much work to wear eyeliner, so many resorted to getting their eyeliner tattooed. It immensely reduced the time we would spend on getting our makeup done. In North Korea, everyone wanted to get everything done faster than everyone else. These days, though, getting your eyelids tattooed is considered out of fashion. So, more and more people have begun to remove the tattoos along their eyelids.
In my case, I wear makeup exactly the same way I did in North Korea. From time to time, South Korean students tell me that they like my makeup. After all, I think people are pretty much the same wherever you are in the world.
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Editing and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
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