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’s question is:
I heard that women in North Korea are not allowed to wear sleeveless shirts or miniskirts. Is this true?
Every aspect of your life is controlled by the government in North Korea. You must do as you’re told by the government at all times. Strict rules apply to all aspects of your daily life. Even inside the house, you’re required to wipe framed portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on a daily basis. Therefore, it is not surprising that the government would decide what you can and cannot wear.
Until 2010, North Korean women couldn’t imagine wearing sleeveless shirts or miniskirts. Women were not allowed to wear pants, let alone short skirts. Jeans, bell-bottoms and skinny jeans were banned as well. Tops were more loosely controlled by the government. However, a friend who left North Korea this year said the authorities are now cracking down on women clad in short skirts and sleeveless tops. In North Korea, shirts should cover women’s knees and women are allowed to wear half-sleeve shirts but they aren’t allowed to wear sleeveless tops. Also, women shouldn’t reveal cleavage.
Women in college are required to wear a college uniform
Women also shouldn’t wear pants at all. We aren’t allowed to ride bicycles or motorcycles, either. Government rules apply to your hairstyles, as well. Women should always wear either bobbed hair or pigtails. Women in college are required to wear a college uniform (yes, college students in North Korea wear college uniforms, as if still in high school!). It is only considered appropriate for college students to wear their college uniforms in public. You should never wear jeans, bell-bottoms or short skirts. But when you’re told not to wear certain types of clothes, you’re more tempted to wear them. Or is it just me who feels that way?
Yet, the authorities don’t crack down on people who are wearing short skirts or those who have forgotten to wear badges of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il year-round. They only crack down at certain times during the year. During inspection season, authorities are stationed on streets to inspect the way the passersby dress and there’s a row of them at intervals of 20 meters. Unless you’re dressed appropriately, according to government guidelines, you cannot go further than 20 meters. It is easier for men to get past these inspectors unless they have weird hairstyles.
However, women can never get past an inspector if they’re not wearing skirts. It doesn’t matter how old you are. The same rule applies to grannies. Grannies who are on their way to mountains or hills to get some veggies must wear skirts. You cannot complain or voice your opinion about what the government does in North Korea. Once I ran into an old lady I knew in my neighborhood and she was pulling her pants up as high as she could.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
“I’m just trying to put on my skirt before I run into an inspector on the street,” she said.
Then, she pulled a cloth from her pocket and draped it around her waist above her pants. It could definitely pass for a skirt. I thought it was ludicrous that women had to wear skirts to go to a mountain when it is already difficult to hike up the mountain in pants. Most of these women aren’t just out for a stroll. They’re the breadwinners and working hard every day to feed their families. Yet they’re required to move about in uncomfortable skirts. They don’t even have freedom to wear pants when every one of them is a working woman.
A MAN’S WORLD
Also, when you take a look at everyone passing by on the street, almost no one is empty-handed. They’re always carrying at least 5kg of goods and it’s not easy moving about in long skirts carrying such heavy goods for work. Once, I wore pants to school and got caught by school inspectors. A male teacher looked at me as if he couldn’t fathom why I would prefer pants over a skirt.
“Je Son, isn’t a skirt much cooler? Skirts are good for circulating air. Why would you wear pants instead of a skirt? Why would you not wear a skirt? I cannot understand you.”
Men have no idea how uncomfortable it is having to crouch down and stand up in skirts
A female who happened to pass by overheard the conversation and she snapped at him in defense of me.
“Sir, have you ever worn a skirt before?” she said. “How would you know without having worn it once in your life? Try on a skirt tomorrow and you’ll change your mind.” I felt gratified by her brilliant response!
Whether you’re still a student enrolled at school or already working in your unit, you were called upon by the nyeomaeng, an organization consisting of housewives, to work on assignments such as pulling out weeds, carrying stones, digging up sand and so on. It would drive you nuts working those assignments in skirts. Men have no idea how uncomfortable it is having to crouch down and stand up in skirts.
If you get caught wearing pants instead of a skirt, you’re called on by the workers’ party to write letters of self-reflection. Once I got caught wearing pants in public by a member of the local party office. As a punishment, I had to run around the playground 10 times singing a song entitled “Let us Sustain Socialism.” After that, I had to pull out weeds on the playground for over an hour and wrote three pages of self-reflection letters before I was allowed to return home. On my way back home, I was so upset that I thought to myself I will continue to wear pants and it will be okay as long as I don’t get caught.
But I changed my mind soon. It wasn’t worth having to get into trouble and dealing with such people. Before that incident, whenever I saw women obediently wearing skirts in public, I thought they were being too submissive and timid. But I changed my view of them. I think they were actually being smarter and clever for avoiding any trouble. Yes, most of these government rules in North Korea are utter nonsense! But it is the smartest way to protect yourself by abiding by them in a country like that.
The above is the perspective of the author, and may not be representative of all North Korean defectors.
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Editing by Rob York and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Adam Westerman