Black Market Fashion Drives Change In North Korea

But Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is still the mastermind

Pyongyang fashion — REUTERS
Feb 19, 2016 at 10:14 AM ET

A thriving black market in North Korea has thrown a wrench in a strict government-implemented caste system that determines who can buy luxury goods.

The majority of North Korea’s population of 25 million is too handicapped by famine and poor living standards to worry about modern fashion trends, but in the capital city of Pyongyang, where many people make more than the average annual income of $1,800 (that’s not a typo), style is slowly evolving beyond the government’s control, according to Business of Fashion.

When Kim Jong-un became supreme leader in 2012, luxury good sales doubled from $300 million to $645.8 million. Today, many stores in Pyongyang sell luxury products from brands like Chanel and Dior despite UN sanctions that ban imports of luxury goods into the totalitarian state. But soon it will likely become more difficult for North Koreans to buy high-end fashion, since most these items are smuggled over the China border and the UN is increasing efforts to restrict trade between the two countries.

Fortunately for fashion-forward North Koreans, there’s another source for Western-influenced attire.

North Korea’s “jangmadang” or black market economy is one of the most influential economic and sociological forces in the country. Jangmadang blossomed under Kim Jong-il’s leadership in the early 1990s, so the “jangmadang generation” of 18- to 35-year-olds grew up in a time when it was easy—and often necessary—to bypass the socialist economy. Since Kim Jong-un came into power, he has loosened many jangmadang restrictions that his father implemented, allowing the black market to flourish even more. Now, even schools reportedly host market exchanges.

Not only has this growing market economy forced department stores to lower government-mandated prices, it has also allowed citizens of lower castes to follow upper-crusts trends by donning fake branded purses and knockoff Burberry trenches. These styles have also grown more “foreign” as more South Korean media is smuggled into the country and blasted across the South Korea border from loudspeakers.

North Koreans buy inflatable clappers at a black market exchange rate before a football match (Photo: Reuters )

As fashion evolves within North Korean borders, dress-code restrictions have reportedly gotten more lax. Women wear higher heels and shorter skirts than they did a few years ago. Even Kim Jong-un’s official girl group, Moranbong Band, now wears outfits that would have been illegal under the reign of his father, Kim Jong-il.

Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol-ju, has also become a major fashion icon in her country, like a North Korean Kate Middleton. Ri often appears next to her husband wearing form-fitting dresses and designer handbags—a signature look that young women across the country have also adopted.

Of course, the fact that the two biggest influencers of North Korea fashion are both under the close watch of His Excellency Kim Jong-un proves that the black market can only do so much to help citizen express themselves.

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