The popularity of South Korean culture is so high in North Korea that dramas aired on one day in the South are being made into DVDs in northeastern China the next and, by the third day, are cropping up on the fringes of North Korean markets. The North Korean people are then watching these dramas over and over again, sharing them with close friends and swapping them for others with trusted confidantes. In the process, the fashions worn by the stars of these dramas become objects of considerable envy.
It is thus inevitable that South Korean clothes would be popular among the North Korean people more generally. As a Yangkang Province source told the Daily NK recently, “Even households that are not doing that well are going out in South Korean clothes, while the demand for Chinese goods is more limited.”
In particular, the source went on, “Since the start of this year, there have been noticeably more people selling South Korean clothes in the markets, because that is what people want to buy.” Prices reflect this, the source said; for example, South Korean t-shirts sell for nearly double the price of the Chinese equivalent.
Despite the fact that selling South Korean products is deemed treasonous by the North Korean authorities, the practice continues. People refer to the illicit clothes in creative ways to avoid official censure; for instance, ‘Clothes with no label’ or ‘Clothes from the house below’. And indeed the clothes do not have labels, because they are removed in order to get through customs on the Sino-North Korean border.
According to the source, “People believe that Chinese clothes are not good enough, to the extent that they need some additional needlework before they can even be worn. South Korean clothes are the opposite; good design and good quality. Even without the label, people know whether they are seeing a South Korean or Chinese item.”
This phenomenal demand for South Korean clothes first started when North Korean defectors began to send South Korean clothes through smugglers to family. One such defector recently received orders from her family back in North Korea, namely “send as many South Korean clothes as you can because I can sell them all in the market.”
“She used to tell me not to send anything that might get her in trouble,” the source recalled. “Nothing tight-fitting, bright colored, revealing or with English letters on. But that is not the case anymore.”
▲ South Korea seizing the ‘hanbok’ market
The preference for South Korean clothes not only refers to daily wear, it also extends to North Korea’s traditional ‘hanbok’. Cha Kwang Ok, a woman of 40 who recently defected said, “Last year I went to my cousin’s house in Pyongyang and saw people in the city wearing hanbok, but they looked different to the ones they usually wear in Chosun. I thought to myself at the time, ‘Pyongyang’s economy has really developed’; they were the South Korean style hanbok.”
North Korea’s traditional hanbok jacket has a narrow ‘dongjeong’ (thin white cloth-covered paper collar) and is of a single color. It features embroidered flowers, and there are only two different styles. In contrast, South Korean hanbok, as worn by queens in the many, many historical dramas produced by South Korean broadcasters, have a wider dongjeong and are of multiple colors.
Han Yong Kwon, age 46 and originally from Pyongyang, defected to South Korea in 2011. In her estimation, “Even as late as 2010 I could not see women wearing South Korean-style hanbok in Pyongyang, so seeing them appearing now in the so-called ‘Capital of the Revolution’ is evidence that the ‘Korean Wave’ is spreading rapidly in North Korea.”
Additional evidence for the same can even be found in the Chosun Art Film Studio-published 2012 calendar, wherein there is a picture of a model wearing the same hanbok as South Korean actress Lee Young Ae wore in the 2003 drama ‘The Great Jang Geum’, showing that even North Korean state entities no longer seem to regard the colorful hanbok as particularly South Korean.