Wife of pilot in hot water for “showy” clothes and accessories in North Korea

Pyongyang residents
Pyongyang residents. Image: Pyongyang Press Corps Pool

The wife of a military officer in South Pyongan Province was recently punished by the North Korean authorities for wearing “outlandish” clothes, hairstyles and a bag with English letters on it. The recent heightened crackdown on “anti-Socialist” clothing has caused confusion among residents in the area.

“A woman in her thirties was stopped by two members of a Socialist Women’s Union of Korea ‘disciplinary team’ because of the clothes and accessories she was wearing,” said a South Pyongan Province-based source on June 27. “The authorities thought the colors of her one-piece dress were too gaudy and the pattern on the dress was too showy.”

“She also got in trouble for having a ‘magic perm (straightening perm),’ letting her long hair hang down, having English letters on her handbag, and because the tag on the bag had the letters ‘USA’ on it,” added the source.

The woman in question is the wife of a fighter pilot stationed at a military base in Sunchon. The incident was reported to the two organizations they are affiliated with, the Pyongsong Socialist Women’s Union of Korea and the military base’s Family Department, respectively. The couple were forced to take part in criticism sessions to reflect on their misdeeds.

“The husband was criticized during his criticism session for ‘insufficiently [carrying out the] domestic revolution,’ while the wife conducted a self-criticism during a family meeting held at the military base,” said the source.

“Domestic revolution” refers to efforts (by the patriarch of a family) to teach members of the family to be completely loyal to the party and the Suryong to ensure that they become revolutionaries and socialists. The fighter pilot was essentially blamed for failing to ensure his wife had become a proper socialist.

According to the source, North Korean officials at the husband’s criticism session said that the spread or acceptance of “bourgeois” ideological and cultural lifestyles could lead to the “paralysis” of the North Korean people’s healthy ideological and revolutionary consciousness. They added that North Koreans need to “destroy” the attempts by the “imperialists” and “other enemy forces” to disrupt the North Korean socialist system. In short, the authorities deemed the wife’s fashion choices to be of an “anti-Socialist” nature.

In the past, North Korean authorities considered showy or luxurious-looking clothes examples of “punkish bourgeois capitalism” and anyone wearing such clothing became targets of criticism. After Kim Jong Un came to power, however, people began wearing clothes with a more diverse range of styles and colors, and people assumed that Ri Sol Ju wearing high-heels and clutch bags meant that the former draconian rules on clothing had been relaxed.

However, the authorities have recently begun clamping down on “anti-Socialist” clothing, leading to confusion. “The Marshal [Kim Jong Un] recently met with the American president and his wife was wearing showy clothing with long hair, so people are asking why it’s a problem for ordinary people to do the same,” the source said, adding that “many people are unhappy with the crackdowns.”

While North Koreans in the past took state policies and orders to be absolute, these days many are questioning why the authorities are using a different standard for the ruling elite and ordinary people.

Photos published in the state press show that Kim Jong Un drives around in a Mercedes Benz, Rolls Royce Phantom and other imported cars, while Ri Sol Ju carries a host of luxury handbags during public engagements.

A separate source in South Pyongan Province reported that some North Koreans aware of the pilot’s wife’s case are instead questioning why she and her husband were punished so lightly.

“An ordinary person caught in the same position wouldn’t just get off with a criticism session. They would be forced to pick weeds in the fields for more than 15 days,” she said. “Many people are unhappy about the different levels of punishment meted out to the elites and the ordinary people.”