About the Author
View more articles by Park Ui-sung
Park Ui-sung is a North Korean defector now living in the South. He grew up in the country's coastal regions.
Every week or so, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Got a question? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Today’s question comes from Liz Hetherington: Does the concept of something being ‘cool’ exist in North Korea? And if so, what are some trends they could speak of?
What I want to say first is that North Koreans are not the unusual people that many people think them to be, and that their thinking does not deviate far from the universal.
Like everywhere, beauty is important in North Korea. Just because it is used for political purposes does not mean that the innate value of beauty also disappears. Just because the Juche Tower or the mosaic art covering the walls of the Pyongyang metro station has been created for political purposes does not mean that it has no artistic value. In fact, that it emerged from North Korea’s isolated situation and policies could make it more unique and interesting.
Increasingly, it seems that North Korea attempts to follow global trends. The fact that girl groups like the Moranbong Band or Chongbong Band are exposing more skin and their dance moves are more provocative is evidence of this. It seems that more North Koreans are trying to imitate the beauty that is reflected through the curtains of the free world.
Until about a decade ago, people’s perceptions of beauty collided with the North Korean state. In the past, the regime was able to silence those who went abroad, block off its borders completely, and stop sources of foreign videos.
As a result, it was easy to control the standards of beauty. But, recently, this has become impossible. In many places in North Korea, foreign videos are coming in and out, the smuggling of goods between the North Korean-Chinese borders has become prevalent, and stories of those who have gone abroad have spread.
For a long time, North Koreans have suppressed their desires, but there is a growing contradiction between the regime and its people.
Trends associated with what is “cool” can be divided into two phenomena: first, a preference towards foreign culture or products and second, what is unique.
The first starts with foreign movies and drama, and South Korean culture plays a huge role in driving these changes. It is a well-known fact that South Korean dramas come into North Korea within a week of being televised.
There is a growing contradiction between the regime and its people
These shows’ popularity is more than just about the storyline, they also play a role in spreading fashion and beauty trends. For example, a hair designer can observe the hairstyles of characters and invest time and money in coming up with ways to imitate these styles. A fashion designer might watch what the main character wears in these dramas and try to copy what the lead characters are wearing.
One week after the drama has been televised, or at the latest a month after, people with hairstyles and clothes from the drama appear here and there – a phenomenon that has become more common through the fast development of jangmadang (private markets). This was also made possible because there are people who want to spend money on satisfying their beauty preferences.
Through word of mouth, the hairstylists and fashion designers who most can closely imitate styles from dramas became popular. These designers make about ten times more than the standard market rate, and these designers and their customers create popular trends. These trends go hand-in-hand with what is considered “cool.”
This does not mean that these styles are accepted publicly. Those who attempt to imitate these styles and promote these trends do so at risk. For example, for a university student who imitated a South Korean hairstyle could receive a warning and throughout the semester could become subject to severe criticism. Despite all this, people continue to attempt to imitate these new foreign beauty trends.
People who want to spend money on satisfying their beauty preferences
What is “cool” is associated with seeking out what is unique. As North Korea is a dictatorship, I believe that there is a deeper meaning underlying this phenomenon. Under a dictatorship and under a system where everyone must follow strict orders, the fact that people want to stand out means, in some ways, that individuality is like a bomb that can destroy homogeneity.
This has spread throughout North Korea and is related to the market economy and principles of capitalism. In 2014, the year that I left North Korea, North Korea’s first smartphone “Arirang” emerged. However, because of limits on its production, these phones became objects that carried a unique allure. Despite the price that the government had set, through private dealings, the price of these phones spiked.
Because of this, Arirang smartphones became the best thing to obtain for people who wanted to be unique.
It may sound absurd, but these smartphones raised your status as a person. Even though this is a straightforward, money is a necessity to pursue what is “cool.”
Like everywhere, being “cool” in North Korea depends on money.
Translation by Rose Kwak
Edited by Oliver Hotham