Trends in North Korea, 2014

Thursday 15th January, 2015

North Korea was much in the news in 2014, from Kim Jong Un’s 40-day disappearance, to the release of The Interview, and the international community’s increasing awareness over North Korea’s human rights crisis.

What happened in North Korean society, within its borders? Although first-hand understanding can only be perceived indirectly through the testimonies of escapees due to the closed and controlled nature of North Korean society, an important aspect that continued to matter was market forces and functions.

We listen to testimonies to learn about the development of market forces that have altered, albeit in limited ways, the consciousness of North Koreans. Through investigating which items were considered trending among North Koreans in 2014, we sample the changes that are occurring on the ground.




Already widespread throughout North Korean society, one could say that drugs have gone beyond their status as merely a trend, to have now become a part and parcel of North Korean culture. According to escapees we spoke to, ‘only the upper class or business people did drugs in the past, but now many ordinary people do them – soldiers, the elderly, even children.’ They testify that doing drugs distracts from hunger and lifts spirits; their widespread use in this way can perhaps be attributed to how in the North Korean system, it is more of a struggle to survive when sober than not.


Ri Sol Ju’s hairstyle

Ri Sol Ju was continued to be seen as setting trends in fashion through her tailored suits, and in further comparison to 2013, an increased desire for shorter skirts and high heels was felt among the women of North Korea.

Observing the changes in her hairstyle, Ri Sol Ju’s preference for permed shoulder-length hair or a trimmed “short-cut” is said to give her a Western and tomboyish look. Her choice in Western-style hair is associated for some with Kim Jong Un’s own preferences, perceived to be influenced by his education abroad.

In fact, defectors say that the First Lady trends in fashion can be easily observed to coincide with changes in Ri Sol Ju’s hairstyle.




As Hallyu (Korean Wave) continues to trend in North Korea, the popularity of South Korean men’s hairstyles has also continued, and particularly the shaping of sideburns. Such facial hair is technically forbidden in North Korea, with authorities proposing that they must adhere to a cut they call “Juche Hair Style”. If caught, a North Korean may be forced to cut his sideburns on the spot. Nevertheless, the demand for sideburns is too great for even state enforcement to stamp it out completely.

Though Kim Jong Un’s haircut was considered fashionable for a short while, cultification never quite measures up to the persistent popularity of the Korean Wave. Men still showed a preference for Song Seung Hun’s sideburns, which turns out, stubbornly, to be “more supreme” than Kim Jong Un’s shaved cheeks.



Short Skirts

In South Korea, the catchy song “Short Skirts” topped the charts. It did the same in the North, at least literally, with Ri Sol Ju being its representative.

When North Korea’s “No. 1 fashion icon” appeared wearing a short skirt, the streets began to see women sporting skirts of a similar length, defectors say. Much interest has focused too on her fashion accessories. Ri Sol Ju’s fashion policy has become a pervasive thing among North Korean women.




Smartphones have also been gaining popularity over flip phones as the market modernises, due to their sleek, elegant design and large high-definition screens. With the permeation of market forces, it appears that more ordinary citizens of North Korea are feeling secure in terms of their basic survival, and as such the focus on presentational goods are increasing.

Even though twice as expensive as flip phones, the demand for smartphones shows no signs of waning. The authorities work accordingly hard to clamp down on and prevent smartphone-related crime.



Aluminium window frames and glass

North Korea has colder winters and cooler summers than in the south. For this reason there is a preference for four-walled, closed structures rather than open spaces in house design.


As in the above image, the layout of traditional homes differs from region to region. In the past, people used to combat the cold by stretching plastic sheets across the wooden window frames. Today, aluminium frames and glass windows are getting more popular, and are available in the markets for those who can afford them. Aluminium frames and glass windows have come even to serve as a symbol of prosperity among ordinary North Koreans.



Door alarms

For aesthetic reasons, it is said, it is forbidden in Pyongyang to cover windows or doors with metal bars. Those living in low-rise apartments worry about their vulnerability to burglars, this worry increasing with the rising popularity of aluminum windows and glass.

As a result, security devices in window frames are coveted. When turned on, these alarms make loud beeping noises when the window is opened.

They’re also desirable in rural areas. Alarms are fitted around pig-pens, not just houses, to go off when gates are opened. Although this system isn’t perfect or even effective, escapees claim that it is considered desirable for giving a sense of security to home and farm owners.



LCD televisions and flatscreens

Compared to the old Braun tube televisions of days past, LCD televisions are becoming popular. We learned from sources in North Korea that the focus of interest is on the thinness of design, rather than the size of the screen.




Batteries are an indispensable item, according to many escapees. In North Korea, where electricity flow is unpredictable, power cuts while watching television are frequent, and these are used as opportunities for the security forces to enforce censorship laws. One example in how they do this is to cut the electricity and then enter homes to check the contents of DVD players, to see whether any have been watching South Korean dramas.

With batteries, one does not have to worry about interruptions like this, and when regularly charged, can be used for a variety of other purposes. Even better results would be produced with a mini generator, which defectors say is the “gold standard”.



Bottled water

In North Korea, carrying a plastic bottle of water is considered a show of affluence, especially in rural areas. People used to scoff at the idea of buying water for drinking, but the newer impression that children of affluent households purchase bottled water is spreading. There are people who consider them somewhat like a fashion item. People will even find empty bottles and fill them with water from nearby springs to carry around.

We learned through sources in the country that bottled water means much more than just something to drink, because it is a symbol that you have economic means. ‘It gives the sense of a person who is able to spare money even for water. It’s a way of showing off,’  they explain.


There really seem to be two trends in play, socio-economically speaking. One side is presentational; the other utilitarian. As capitalist dynamics continue to drive survival needs, so change the ways in which North Koreans behave and think, focusing on items that are not only useful but also pleasing to the eye. Those who survived the Arduous March wish to further express their suppressed desire for display. Such changes can continue to be expected in 2015, with market forces – grinding against control, often co-opted by power – being a main driver.



Read in Korean

Reporting by Shin Jun-shik


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