Never Mind the Starvation, What’s in Style? NYT on North Korea’s Fashionable Tyranny, 'Stiletto Surprise'

October 19th, 2017 3:37 PM

Carol Giacomo of the New York Times editorial board contributed a puzzling story to the back of the Times Thursday Styles section, “Decoding Dress in North Korea (Including a Stiletto Surprise).

Giacomo was part of a group of four Times journalists invited by North Korea's Foreign Ministry, including columnist Nicholas Kristof, who again showed he’s quite flexible in accommodating dictatorships and is eager to Instagram his pizza lunch in a country where millions go hungry. A place where three Americans are currently being detained and where a young American tourist Otto Warmbier fell into a coma after being sentenced to hard labor for stealing a poster (he eventually died in the United States).

Giacomo had previously filed an Editorial Observer from the hermit state that tilted toward moral equivalency but was at least a serious story:

Our interviews have persuaded me that it is also imperative for Washington to ease up on the rhetoric. Mr. Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month crossed a line for many North Koreans because it made the fight deeply personal, disparaging Mr. Kim as 'rocket man' and threatening to 'totally destroy North Korea,' a country of 26 million people.

In contrast, it’s unclear the purpose of Thursday’s (not even very original) Styles piece, save to squeeze out some semi-positive story out of the most repressive totalitarian regime on the planet. The accompanying photos were wholly positive, showing citizens at attention, smiling children, and not a hint of want.

Say “fashion in North Korea” to anyone and you’re liable to get a snort in return and a snarky comment about the hair of Kim Jong-un, the 33-year-old leader.

It’s true that most North Koreans are too poor and too hungry to think much about clothing in what may be the most authoritarian, least accessible state on earth. It is a country run by a dictator, the scion of a dynasty that has ruled with complete control since an armistice ended the Korean War in 1953.

And it’s easy to think of North Korea as an irredeemably one-dimensional place. Just look at the huge demonstrations that are the most common public image of local life, invariably showing thousands of citizens, some in military garb, some in Korean cultural dress, still others in various uniforms, all performing in lock step.

Yet Pyongyang, the capital, where I spent five days earlier this fall as part of a trip with The New York Times editorial board, has more nuance, texture and color than I expected. While it’s important not to overanalyze a first trip to any country, I was struck by the fact that contrary to the blistering official propaganda, not all North Koreans are eager to bomb the United States. People will fight for their country, absolutely, they told me, but some insisted they harbor no ill will toward Americans and would prefer to live in peace.

Details of dressing that I saw, and of the life in general, reinforced suspicions that the desire for personal expression has not been totally snuffed out.


The sartorial fresh air is often attributed to Mr. Kim, who isn’t much of a fashion plate himself but reportedly expanded the importing of luxury goods after coming to power in 2012, or at least he did before the United Nations tightened sanctions. His wife, Ri Sol-ju, who has a fondness for tailored form-fitting dresses, is seen as something of a style icon.

This scary detail of North Korea's totalitarianism was included as just another effect in the sartorial scheme:

Pins, required to be worn by all adults, feature either Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder, his son Kim Jong-il, or both. People told us it didn’t matter which one you wore as long as it was on to the lapel over the heart in full view.

For students of all ages, the routine was white shirts, red kerchiefs and navy on the bottom: pants for the boys, skirts for the girls. But even here, individuality is creeping in....

Then it got truly tasteless, roping in wholly innocent toddlers:

It was the toddlers at day care, however, who really caught my eye. In unmatched T-shirts and pull-up pants, they were a riot of pattern and hue, wearing a yellow shirt with purple pants, say, or a multistriped shirt with print bottoms, or a yellow and pink top, pink bottoms and blue and white socks. As far as fashion goes, that youngest generation made the most radical statement of all.