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Inside North Korea

Uniform Culture in N. Korea



Traits of collectivist North Korean society are reflected in clothing designs as well. Major items displayed at industrial art exhibitions include work clothes for laborers, jerseys, uniforms of service workers and school uniforms. Local residents typically wear the traditional Korean outfit when attending official events. During meetings, they wear military uniforms, Mao suits or same-colored suits. This shows that North Korea stresses social unity through clothing. 

Videos or photos of North Korea often show local citizens clad in uniforms. Today, we’ll learn about uniforms in North Korea from Professor Choi Hee Sun from the Graduate School of Arts at Chung-Ang University. 

Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and current leader Kim Jong-un said that it was necessary to develop clothing suitable for socialist lifestyles and to reject clothes influenced by capitalistic trends. North Korea regards garments as a means of highlighting the group spirit and safeguarding the regime, rather than as a way of expressing individualism and reflecting the latest trends. The country believes that clothes reveal a sense of belonging and a combative spirit in a socialist society. In the North, tidy uniforms, with minimal decorations, should serve functional purposes for production or education. In this atmosphere, North Korean residents are used to wearing uniforms during official events and in social life. 

In North Korea, the clothing industry makes up a significant portion in the light industry. To produce clothes for domestic use, the Garment Institute of the Ministry of the Light Industry works on standardized garment designs and processing methods. Production units in local regions manufacture the clothes, which are then supplied to the people through department stores or shops. 

North Korea’s fashion designs have changed significantly under current leader Kim Jong-un’s rule, with a touch of modern flair added to uniform designs as well. 

Many designs of clothing were shown at an exhibition marking the 74th anniversary of the foundation of Pyongyang University of Fine Arts in August. They included designs of everyday clothes, of course, and there were diverse designs of school uniforms, gym clothes and uniforms of service workers at cultural facilities. Under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, the uniform of flight attendants at Air Koryo has changed a lot. In addition to lower necklines, shorter skirts and the neat, tight-fitting hat, the navy uniform with a more sophisticated look replaced the old red uniform. The new, stylish uniform of flight attendants is considered an important means of promoting the regime. 

In the North, wearing a uniform is mandatory in all schools—from elementary schools to universities. Unlike in South Korea, where schools outfit their students with their own uniforms, the North standardized uniform designs for different education courses. Therefore, elementary school students all across the nation wear uniforms with the same design. The same is true of middle school students and university students. The uniforms do not have a name tag, as North Korea upholds totalitarianism, not individualism. 

It is said that the designs of North Korean school uniforms changed in 2015 for the first time in 30 years. 

North Korea adopted a law for a 12-year compulsory education system during the Supreme People’s Assembly in September 2012. In line with the system, new designs of school uniforms were created. Unlike in the past, when one single institute was responsible for design production, the Central Industrial Art Guidance Bureau collected various designs from Pyongyang University of Fine Arts and local industrial art studios and selected final ones. As a result, new uniforms, along with bags and other school supplies, were designed. 

For summer uniforms, boy students wear white shirts and shorts, while girl students wear shirts and skirts. For winter uniforms, they put jackets on top. Former uniforms were generally dark, but the color became brighter. Uniforms for boy students are cobalt blue, and girl students in elementary and middle schools don purple jackets and grey skirts. While the color has changed noticeably, the style has not changed a lot, as girl students continue to wear skirts. 

North Koreans begin to wear uniforms from elementary schools. When they get jobs, they also wear uniforms at workplaces. Therefore, North Korean citizens are very familiar with uniforms. 

Interestingly, locals wear military uniforms most frequently when working. In the first place, there are over 1 million soldiers in the North. Men belong to reserve forces known as the Worker-Peasant Red Guards until they turn 60, and women, until they get married. They are frequently mobilized for training, and both men and women have at least one military uniform. So, it is not awkward for North Koreans to wear a military uniform in daily life.  

North Korea says that Kim Jong-suk, former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung’s first wife and the current leader’s grandmother, was deeply involved in the designs of military uniforms. 

Military uniforms have much to do with national security. It is known that Kim Jong-suk herself designed and made samples of uniforms of the Korean People’s Army and insignia that denotes rank during the early years of the regime. That is regarded as the origin of North Korea’s industrial art. She is known to have designed the uniform of anti-Japanese assault forces during the Japanese colonial period. She is also said to have designed the military uniform of Pyongyang School that was established about two years before the creation of the Korean People’s Army. North Korea claims that the uniform of Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, which was set up in 1947, was completed with her design and needlework. This design has not changed much, with red stripes attached on sleeves and trousers still remaining. 

One of the popular fashion items in North Korea is the Mao suit, although it is not a uniform. The country’s top leaders Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un often appeared in public in Mao suits. It is said that general citizens all have Mao suits. 

Mao suits may look similar at a glance, but their colors, pocket shapes, button shapes and materials actually vary. They are classified into general-type, low-end and high-end. Males mostly choose the khakis or brown color for their Mao suits, which are common to see at workplaces and in everyday life. 

North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung used to fasten all buttons when he sported his Mao suits, while his successor Kim Jong-il, who valued practicality, would enjoy zip-up, khakis Mao suits. Current leader Kim Jong-un’s suits use diverse colors and luxurious textiles. Sometimes, stripes or small patterns are featured on black or dark suits. His suits have also shown a flap pocket and a round pocket from time to time. His Mao suits continue to evolve in a luxurious way using various tailoring methods. He once undid buttons of his suit and exposed a white shirt when inspecting a site. By using Mao suits in various ways, the leader is politically promoting his image as a leader who is friendly to his people.

Diverse fashion items are flowing into North Korea from outside through the unofficial market or jangmadang. But the socialist regime still tends to connect one’s attire with his or her ideology, although clothing reflects individuals’ desire and taste. North Korean authorities have strengthened ideological control over the public lately, even regulating outfits of teenagers. Against the backdrop, the nation’s uniform culture is likely to prevail for the time being. 

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