Like many temporary visitors to the DPRK who had lived in South Korea for a long time, I immediately grasped the meaning of an old Korean saying: namnam puknyeo, “the most beautiful Korean women are from the North, the most beautiful Korean men are from the South.”
Indeed, in Pyongyang I found myself surrounded by rather mediocre men and exceptionally pretty women, though this rule was not without significant exceptions.
MEN OF KOREAS: THE HANDSOME AND NOT SO
In my view, an average North Korean man looks less impressive than his better-fed, better dressed and groomed Southern brother. In comparison to this Prince Charming, an ordinary North Korean male looks scrawny, with a darker complexion, which testifies to long hours of manual labor in the fields under the scorching sun.
The most striking detail of the Northern men’s appearance is their height difference compared to the Southerners. One day I walked alongside marching soldiers and was astonished to find many were shorter than my 164 cm height and – shame on me – apparently skinnier.
However, young North Koreans who belong to upper echelons of society concede little to their Southern brothers. They are tall, groomed, and handsome and have no trace of protruded bellies, which in North Korea are typically associated with mid-level Party bureaucrats, kanbu.
In fact, the best looking Korean men I have ever met were two defectors from elite Pyongyang families, who had run away in the late 1980s to marry their foreign sweethearts.
This forced me to presuppose that namnam puknyeo principle is not 100% precise: in the case of men, Korean beauty is a more social than geographical phenomenon.
The case of women, however, is more complicated.
WOMEN OF THE KOREAS: THE PRETTY AND THE PRETTIER
Like their men, South Korean women are attractive due to the collective efforts of their beauty and fashion industries and overall good quality of life. Widespread use of plastic surgery and the availability of high-quality cosmetics procedures also allow South Korean women to stay young for decades.
Body qualities which are considered particularly desirable in North Korea are often the opposite of those in the South
In contrast, North Korean women are, like their men, short and slim and look older and wearier than their well-preserved South Korean counterparts. Again, obligatory work in fields during planting or harvesting seasons emaciates the delicate female skin, and worn-out teeth often betray a lack of access to quality dental services.
Nevertheless, younger North Korean females are often truly beautiful, and this beauty has nothing to do with social standing or the grooming efforts of its bearer.
It is just the unexplainable magic of nature, which foreign guests in Korea would feel even in the most unpretentious ajumma walking down a Pyongyang street, holding the hand of a child and carrying a heavy bag in another.
Does this natural beauty make North Korea a land of confident young ladies? Not at all.
Like their sisters in the South who live under constant “pretty pressure” from their highly competitive society, North Korean women are, too, tormented by body insecurity.
Interestingly enough, body qualities which are considered particularly desirable in North Korea are often the opposite of those in the South.
THE FATTER THE BETTER
To understand the gap between these two visions, one should look at a waitress I encountered one night at Yanggakdo hotel in Pyongyang. Even the most generous Western critic would call the girl chubby.
The girl, nevertheless, confidently wore a tight short dress, which put her curves on proud display, and moved and smiled confidently. It was clear that her working in the prestigious hotel was not a politically correct allowance to body-positive discourse.
She considered herself a rare beauty, and this confidence came as no surprise: the girl looked like a classic seducer, a “capitalist bad girl” from the North Korean serial “Nation and Destiny” (민족과 운명). Unlike Hollywood movies in which the bad girl should be a skinny long-legged blonde, Pyongyang cinematography tends to portray these sirens as full and stout figures.
“Pretty female characters had round innocent faces with rosy cheeks and soft lines”
Yes, North Koreans love fat, which is understandable: most cultures consider qualities associated with luxurious lifestyles to be beautiful.
While in the developed world, the fat body suggests a lack of resources and/or education on the part of its bearer, in North Korea a protruded belly is a sign of the privileged class, which enjoys the availability of precious calories and is a guarantee of a person’s survival. In North Korea, a pear-formed figure is to be carried with pride.
When I happened to compliment the appearance of average North Korean women to my minder, she raised her brows in disbelief: “Do you really think so? But our women are so scrawny…”
While the world pokes fun at the plump figure of the current North Korean leader, the people adore him. Sure enough, being North Koreans, they love all their leaders, but this time the feeling comes so easy. Why? Because this particular leader is special: he is handsome.
The North Korean screen follows these unorthodox beauty standards, though with some caveats.
BEAUTIES ON NORTH KOREAN SCREENS: THE 1980S
By the 1980s North Korean cinema had developed its own beauty stereotypes. Pretty female characters had round innocent faces with rosy cheeks and soft lines, which often melted into double chins.
If the beauty was a positive character, her body contours were hidden by modest dresses. If a pretty girl was an enemy, she wears tight clothes, which reveal a busty stout silhouette with visible fat folds.
Round face, overfed body: such was the universal pattern of North Korean cinematic beauties of “Wolmido,” (월미도) “Honggildong,” (홍길동) “Chunhyang-jon,” (춘향전) and other popular films. Such looks are rare in North Korea, and they are the subject of envy from the regular people.
In the case of male actors, an emphasis was also put on harmonious faces, while the bodies were more or less the same: whenever possible, however, North Korean cinema preferred larger male actors, whose heavy features and solid figures stood for manlier, stable behavior and a reliable character.
The impact of famine was especially clear in the case of the young actress Yun Su Kyeong
Not surprisingly, the longest lasting stars of North Korean cinema were the actors with bigger bodies, such as Om Kil Seong and Cheo Chang Su. The slimmer male characters were, as a rule, comic figures.
THE FAMINE YEARS… AND BEYOND
The era of food shortages which started in the mid-1990s (the so-called “Arduous March”) brought curious changes in the world of North Korean cinematic beauty.
The first notable tendency was the weight loss of many so famous actresses – it seemed that even privileged social strata of cultural workers fell victim to food shortages.
The impact of famine was especially clear in the case of the young actress Yun Su Kyeong, who starred in the role of Yeon Ok in “Wolmido” (1982).
As it is visible in the films “Sunrise in the distant mountains” (먼산의 노을) (1994) and “Decent life goes on” (이어가는 참된 생활) (2002), Yun had lost her previously famous voluptuousness.
By Western standards, she had become much prettier: her double-chinned face had acquired a delicate shape, her eyes looked bigger and deeper and her corpulent figure had become slender.
“Eat less train more” was the unofficial motto of this epoch
Yet, the North Korean audience did not appreciate this transformation from a fattish teenager into a beautiful porcelain doll.
In one article, defector journalist Joo Seong-ha laments Yun’s “loss of youthful beauty” and transformation into a “regular North Korean woman.” Given that the actual reason for Yun’s weight loss was most probably famine, it is difficult to disagree with the journalist.
The second novelty was the introduction of anti-obesity rhetoric, with admonitions against greediness becoming particularly popular.
In the sports comedy “The Family of Basketball Players” (농구가족) (1998) a character criticizes her brother of a perfectly healthy weight for allegedly having “crossed the boundaries of obesity” and warns him about dangers of overeating and lack of exercise; in the culinary comedy “Snowy Landscape” (설풍경) (2010) an enthusiastic chef warns housewives against a combination of pork and ginger as allegedly leading to obesity.
“Eat less train more” was the unofficial motto of this epoch. The first part of this slogan apparently worked, even if was against the will of the North Koreans.
However, overall the anti-obesity/anti-greediness rhetoric failed to influence the choices of new actors emerging on North Korean screens in the late 1990s-early 2000s. North Korean filmmakers, it seemed, were being guided by the same old beauty standards.
The above-mentioned “Family of the Basketball Players,” for instance, introduced a young actress Ri Yeong Suk in the role of Seol Ok, and her face has a triple chin. (The very existence of such face in North Korea of 1998 is a mystery.)
The characters in these new North Korean dramas are overweight by Korean, but not Western standards
The leading romantic male actor of the 1990s Kim Yeong Il, too, had a double chin, protruded belly and weak arms.
With the improvement of the economic situation, many even previously slender North Korean actors have gained fat and now proudly display it on the screens. In the serials of the 2010s, many of them emerge as notoriously heavy.
Sure enough, the characters in these new North Korean dramas are overweight by Korean, but not Western standards.
And yet, the incongruence between the heavy bodies and the roles which the actors play is quite startling. “Young sensitive brides” have wide effeminate shoulders, which almost rip their joseonnoks, “enthusiastic underground activists” with bodies that can barely move, “strapping young officers” whose uniforms tightly embrace their bellies – all these characters hardly add realism to North Korean cinematic narrations.
Even more remarkable is the tendency of portraying apparently obese and constantly eating kids as “well-cared” and “cute”: such are the cases of popular serials about talented children “Dream whispers” 꿈속삭이는 소리 (2012), “Our neighbors” 우리 이웃들 (2013), and “Long awaited father” (기다리는 아버지) (2013). The little actors who play these roles resemble the notorious “little emperors” of contemporary China: over-pampered and overfed.
Luckily for North Koreans, such unhealthy figures are rare in real life. Fat is still in high esteem in this country: rich food is still not widely available, and North Koreans use every chance to fill their stomachs full.
But North Koreans do not live in cultural isolation. “Korean wave” has already reached their shores, and the spread of the South Korean fashion for staying thin, increasingly popular among the North Korean elite, may soon become commonplace.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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