Beginning early last year, foreign visitors to Pyongyang and other major North Korean cities began to frequently encounter a very peculiar picture – even though, admittedly, only a tiny fraction of them could only fully appreciate the meaning of what they were seeing.
At major crossroads in Pyongyang, as well as some other major cities, one could frequently notice groups of two or three women, all dressed in some kind of uniform. This outfit is generally based on the traditional Korean dress, known in South Korea as the “hanbok,” but of a rather unusual and formal color scheme: long black skirts and white blouses. At least one of these women is equipped with a large Chinese-made plastic whistle, and she also might keep a large book of instruction under her arm.
These groups of middle-aged women are the dreaded “Fashion Police” patrols or, as they are officially known in North Korea, patrol units of the Women’s Union (nyomyong kyuchaltae).
Their task is to stop and interrogate all people whose dress or haircut does not agree with the officially prescribed norms – norms explained in a large book of instructions.
The bans are manifold. It is known that they include strict warnings against excessively short and revealing skirts. Trousers for women are permitted these days, but should never, ever be rolled up over the knees. Dyed hair is one of the gravest possible offenses – all hair in North Korea should be of uniform and patriotic black color, unless it has turned grey due to age.
If the patrol intercepts a misbehaving North Korean, punishment will follow. The exact type of sanction varies: from relatively small fines to short-term administrative imprisonment.
One of my contacts has complained that in recent months he has been intercepted a few times a day because of his dyed hair. It is not a great deal for this young man: even though he looks perfectly North Korean and indeed has spent most of his life in Pyongyang, he is a hwagyo – a Chinese citizen with permanent residency in North Korea – and as such, he can dress and cut his hair in any way he considers suitable.
Foreigners, including hwagyo, are exempted from such regulations. But, for a North Korean who is found guilty of such a hideous crime as dying his/her hair, the story might end with a big fine or even short period of mandatory labor.
Fashion police themselves are not a new presence on North Korean city streets: in one form or another these people have been around since at least the late 1960s, if not earlier. The government, like many communist states (and, for that matter, many religious ones as well), believes that it is its sacral duty to ensure that the citizens are dressed in a proper and morally acceptable way.
However, in the past, “fashion patrols” were quite limited in the scale of their operations. Yes, the restrictions of the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il eras generally were even more demanding and stringent. For example, until the early 2010s, it was illegal for women to wear trousers when not at work. However, in the past, the enforcement of these regulations was remarkably lax.
Back in the early 2000s, most women were perfectly aware where and when fashion patrols could be encountered, so they simply avoided the dangerous areas at dangerous times. Of course, sometimes it didn’t work out. I know a person who once had her leg broken when she was trying to run away from such a patrol (it happened around 2000). But, on balance, the old regulations were seldom enforced and thus were seen as a minor annoyance.
Now, things seem to be different: and Kim Jong Un has turned his attention to fashion and public decency. Obviously, the Supreme Leader, true to his nature, decided to act in the most radical way, and the current “decency enforcement campaign” is reported to be of a hitherto unseen scale.
Perhaps the campaign itself is not a big deal. After all, the restrictive dress code enforcement did not prevent many a Protestant society in 17th-19th century Europe from developing vibrant and highly successful market economy, or from doing pioneering work in science. Such things are rather marginal, after all.
But there are indicators that the current backlash is not limited to fashion alone.
All these developments contradict the general line of Kim Jong Un’s economic and social policy
Over the last few months, there have been reports about a significant strengthening of what is known as the “Eradication of Anti-Socialist Activities Campaign.” The patrols, consisting of police, party officials, and other government personnel are said to be cruising the streets in search for traces of “unhealthy” activities – such as selling smuggled goods from China.
They stage sudden inspections of small companies where private capital is invested, and they reportedly even investigate some private entrepreneurs – albeit on a small scale. Authorities have begun to pay attention to the visitors of posh restaurants which have proliferated in Pyongyang recently.
All this means that the new rich North Koreans are quite careful with their spending: for the first time in seven years of Kim Jong Un’s rule they want to avoid attention.
“Eradication of Anti-Socialist Activities Campaigns,” once again, are not new: they have been around since the days of the Great Famine in the late 1990s. However, not much has been heard about such campaigns under Kim Jong Un’s rule – until now, that is.
All these developments contradict the general line of Kim Jong Un’s economic and social policy, which, until recently at least, could be best described as a policy of “reforms without openness.”
Under Kim Jong Un’s watch, North Korea has remained remarkably restrictive in the areas of politics and ideology. The new leader and his immediate entourage have been working hard to strengthen the self-isolation, which got somewhat rusty under his father’s watch, and to keep populace isolated from the outside influences.
However, at the same time, until now Kim Jong Un has proved himself to be a remarkably pro-market leader, so he has never tried to decrease neither the freedom of individuals to make money, nor their freedom to spend this money as they see fit.
Current events, however, suggest that Kim Jong Un might be changing his mind.
Let’s hope this is just a minor fluke – after all, the North Korean leader is known to be not only intelligent, brutal, and cold-minded, but also somewhat capricious and emotional. Perhaps some unknown event influenced him for a while, and in due time things will go back to what has become the “new normal” under Kim Jong Un’s watch.
However, recent campaigns should be seen as a reminder that all the successes of the North Korean economy we have seen in recent years, no matter how impressive and encouraging, are still built on shaky ground. North Korea is, after all, one of the world’s few operational absolute monarchies.
The word of the sovereign is an absolute law of the land, and the sovereign is limited by virtually nothing but political rationality as he sees it. Therefore, a sudden change of his august mind might stop this pro-market, pro-capitalist reform drive we have witnessed in recent years.
Let’s hope this is just a minor fluke
It’s too early to start worrying about these trends. After all, as we have seen above, a strict dress code and even stricter ideological control can sometimes be perfectly compatible with a creative and dynamic capitalist economy. One also should keep in mind that the market-oriented economic reforms serve not only the interests of the common North Koreans, but also long-term interests of Kim Jong Un himself, as well as the interests of the “top 1%” in North Korea.
It will be difficult for them to stay in control of a fast-growing North Korea, but if the country starts stagnating, their task will become almost impossible. Thus, let’s hope that the fashion police patrols will soon quietly disappear from streets.
Nonetheless, their appearance is a bad sign, and, frankly, this author is not encouraged.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: CPC_6008 by nknews_hq on 2016-10-02 10:43:52