The Material Girls of Pyongyang: Theorizing Gendered Consumption in North Korea

Michael Hurt
Feb 27 · 14 min read
Aspirational cosmopolitanism as style is clearly on display in state-steered, North Korean popular culture, since it is in line with state goals of futurist, science-driven development that mixes with traditional notions of gendered beauty. Scanned photo courtesy of Alek Sigley.

This time around, I’m going to issue a “trigger warning” for my article. If words on a page require you to concentrate, think hard, and carefully digest the concepts being slung at you, it is likely you simply skip this article this week and thumb over to something else. If all long or unfamiliar words that denote pretty big concepts (that are actually defined in the piece) all appear as “jargon” being used merely to frustrate, you should probably move on to the Buzzfeed version of this piece (which really exists, actually) and look at all the nice pictures, because they actually are quite nice. Or you can read the New York Times piece that expresses continual surprise that North Korean people actually think about fashion at all. Either way, I warn you that you will likely not like this piece and that you might find more entertaining fare elsewhere.

But if you’re up for a little concept-chewing and an intellectually fun read, stick with me. I tried to take what I consider an interesting academic paper I wrote (since no one really reads academic papers) and present some of its ideas in a place where normal people actually might read it.

I recently finished and submitted an article on gendered patterns of North Korean fashion and consumption. I’ve included the abstract just for fun below. It’s a dense 287 words, but lays out the argument in that extremely compressed (and often obtuse) way that academics in the same field do when they already speak the same language.

The Abstract

North Korea continues to undergo quiet but rapid transformation. With the days of the Arduous March behind it, North Korean society largely depends on markets for survival, whilst the North Korean government tentatively introduces aspects of capitalism into its economy and law. Moreover, as the importance of the market economy grows, in both the physical and general senses, the social and economic power of women also increases while changing the very character of role-norms for women. (Lankov, 2014) As North Korean society becomes increasingly consumerist and materialistic, sartorial signification matures into fashion as its role goes beyond utility into the realm of self-expression. While there is no formally written dress code, well-understood limitations on attire in North Korea are still socially enforced; nevertheless, North Korean women have still found ways to be fashionable. (Dalton et al, 2017) In accordance with this, market observations on the ground in Pyongyang are now witness to the emergence of the cosmopolitan North Korean woman — she wears stilettos, skirts above the knee, and enjoys shopping, facials, and is even beholden to body techniques and control regimes such as dieting and cosmetic surgery. North Korean women, by using their dress as dialogue, negotiate and create their own constructions of femininity and identity as exercises of political agency. Because of the inevitable reliance on objects and images from material culture in dealing with a society largely closed off from the rest of the modern world, the study will take the general approach and holistic regard for artifacts of material culture found in post-processual analysis from archeological theory (see Hodder) while utilizing the logic of consilient triangulation from Visual Sociology (Harper) to contextualize visual sources in connection with their spatial and social contexts.

A Failed Project

Like many projects worth undertaking, this paper was borne out of failure. The main methodology and source of data was originally going to come from attending and photographing at the Pyongyang Fashion Festival (which can be understood as a North Korean “fashion week” of sorts). It was going to be done while attending the event on a “tour” organized by boutique academic North Korea tour operator Tongil Tours (all access to North Korea to non-North Koreans must usually be done within the confines of a formal tour with a North Korean minder in tow). However, the tour and anthropological data gathering exercise using the camera as access to the event would not come to pass due to the Trump administration’s sudden banning of US citizens traveling to North Korea from summer 2018. This, quite naturally, made prior research plans untenable, forcing a new, creative approach to the methodology.

The Mother All Things

According to Plato, “The true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.” Circumstances often require innovative solutions around practical roadblocks in conducting the research. In the case of the NK fashion project, the question became “How do you do a project on NK fashion/consumption if you can’t go?” Most of the data collection involves the recording of how individual subjects interact with the built environment and fit into physical spaces, as well as other artifacts of consumption through the camera.

A New Approach

This article laid out the need for “intermediated ethnography”, as a type of ethnographic, on-the-ground, anthropological-style research that circumstances required to be carried out by an intermediary, who themselves would become informants later. In this way, a “participant-informant” can become useful as someone who gains access to research subjects the principal investigator, due to practical reasons or other legal or social constraints, cannot directly access.

The primary informant-investigator who provided much of the foundational observations in this study was Michelle Joyce, who-founded Tongil Tours with my other informant-investigator Alek Sigley in 2013. She worked briefly for various North Korean interest groups in South Korea between 2013 and 2015 and was employed by the University of Technology Sydney to work in an Australian Research Council Discovery Project on North Korean women. In this sense, she is deeply familiar with North Korean culture and its people, not to mention enjoying significant and positive relations with North Koreans within an extensive network of connections in the tourism industry and North Korean society. Hence, her value as a participant-observer in North Korea is nearly as extensive is possible in today’s world. But beyond Michelle’s value as a participant-observer in a more general sense, she also is able to gather specific research data as an experienced tour operator with access that few other people in the world has, in any practical, actualized sense. The other individual informant-investigator in this study was Alek Sigley, an Australian national who is currently completing his master’s degree in Korean literature at Kim Il Sung University. He is the founder of Tongil Tours, which specializes in educational tourism to North Korea. He also found and wrote about some key images from a North Korean fashion magazine/catalog that got a lot of media attention recently.

The institutional agent that provided much of the basic logistical support for the ethnographic data to be provided by the two informant-investigators named above is Tongil Tours, which is an Australia-based tour operator specializing in educational tourism to the DPRK. Tongil Tours is the only North Korea tour specialist staffed by Korean speakers with academic backgrounds in Korean Studies. Tongil Tours offers study tours themed around North Korean language study, North Korean art and architecture, and North Korean history, politics, and culture more generally.

An New Methodology

The new circumstances required a new approach, a new methodology. In what situations does one gather information and evidence about cultures and societies one cannot directly access or travel to? In what way can a resesarcher learn about social norms and values about a people s/he cannot meet over coffee and a field recorder?

I haunted the databases and Google Scholar before pulling on a few threads that led to the obvious answer of Archeology, the field in which researchers are trained in specific forensic techniques to help make sense of artifacts that give indications about the nature of specific societies separated from the present day by vast canyons of time. In the North Korean case, the separation is political and spatial, but the tools for making sense of material artifacts from a place one cannot directly access would be immensely useful.

Before long, I had learned about something called ethnoarchaeology, which takes a unique and new position on the matter, even in archeology. Towards the end of contextualizing the items of material culture captured in the photographs and which act as a visual record of them, Ian Hodder’s view of “post-processual” archeology is important to understand here, as his ideas found meaning within a debate going on in ethnoarchaeology about the nature of what can be known about a culture based on its material remnants. In the older, processual view, “The aim is to reach not the Indian behind the artifact, but the system behind both Indian and artifact” (Hodder 1985, 7) In this view, individual action and agency becomes overdetermined by an analysis that only has eyes for the system. But in the post-processual view, while items of material culture indeed do provide hints as to the social rules and even ideological systems of the culture being examined, this view centralizes the agency and circumstantial specificity as something that often exists in a different or even conflicting relationship with the greater social structures of that culture. Put more simply, the post-processual view aims to see “the Indian behind the artifact” in addition to the systems of thought and culture behind him or her. In the case of this paper, this approach attempted to examine items from North Korean material culture in an attempt to see the “real North Koreans behind the artifacts” or put more simply, the real North Koreans behind all the things, politics, and barriers that would seemingly define them.

An Aspirational Cosmopolitanism, or Observations from a Coffee Shop Menu

Fig. 2 — As an artifact of ethnoarcheology, this North Korean coffee shop menu is revealing in its use of English words and some signifiers not always defined in Korean (e.g. “latte” and “frappe”).

While a coffee shop menu may seem like a mundane, everyday object bereft of significant social data, its high level of utility and empirical value lies in the very way it is deeply imbricated into the layers of everyday social life. Even as a “menu” is obviously a literal a list of consumptive options, it is also inherently a set of social ones as well.

Indeed, Sangmee Bak, in her landmark look at the cultural valences of coffee consumption in South Korea, stated that “coffee drinking is a useful window that opens onto diverse dimensions of contemporary Korean society, and produces and represents various Korean identities in the global world.” (Bak 2005, 38) This is no less true in the North, which does not share South Korea’s particular historical experience with coffee vis a vis the United States, but nevertheless is an active participant in the global conversation around coffee, especially as menu items such as “Americano” and “Chocolate Frappe” appear in Roman script along with “Double Espresso.”

In the case above, more than being a list of items for ingestion, the decision to include English text itself constitutes a significant symbolic choice from a North Korean perspective. Given the official tendency to eschew the use of foreign loanwords (especially from American English) and translate them into localized (Sino-Korean) equivalents (e.g. “frozen creamy thing” in Korean instead of the Korean transliteration of “ice cream” from English), it is a significant choice to describe things such as “ba-nilla”, “al-mon-deu” or “la-tte” even in Korean script, let alone in the Roman alphabet as well. Many of the translation/transliteration choices are curious in this way, given that “Blue Sky Soda Water” could easily be translated with easy Sino-Korean or pure Korean phoneme choices such as “pu-reun ha-neul” for blue sky, or “tan-san-su” for soda water. Translating “Blue Sky Soda” into the transliterated sounds from English with the Sino-Korean phoneme “su” for water results in the name “Blue Sky Soda Su” and stands out as a gastric/social menu item nearly as remarkable as “Americano” on a North Korean coffee shop menu. Given the North Korean state’s officially anti-American stance, the choice to utilize that term instead of “black coffee” seems significant, yet not contradictory.

All of these data points align along the lines of what archeology scholar Ian Hodder would describe as a “style.” They define a stylistic choice. Indeed, Hodder notes:

The concept of style comes to have a central place in archaeological discourse because it refers to the historical particularity of culture and can be observed in all spheres of life, since all spheres are meaningful. Thus the economy is as much stylistic as the decoration on a potsherd. (Hodder 1985, 10)

They are markers of a kind of cosmopolitanism that blare out from something as simple as a Pyeongyang coffee shop menu. “Americano” or a “latte” or the constantly untranslated descriptor “ice” all speak to a certain kind of cosmopolitanism — whether actualized or merely aspirational — on the part of the kind of North Korean patron who frequents coffee shops in the capital of the putative socialist paradise of North Korea.

Indeed, as Bak (2010) has argued in relation to the consumption of ethnic food in South Korea, in the North Korean context, the authentic foreign coffee styles such as “frappes” and “ice” are markers of a kind of distinction in style and taste and are clear markers of a cosmopolitan, even global identity for the relatively few, lucky North Koreans privileged enough to dine in the kind of coffee shops that offer such sophisticated, international coffee fare as found in the kind of pricy, tourist-oriented coffee shops our informant-investigator was able to access for this study.

This cosmopolitan, international ideal on the minds of at least some North Koreans seems to describe a style that runs across various aspects of social life. This fact is interesting as something that runs somewhat counter to official modes of engagement with nations and cultures outside of North Korea, at least in the realm of the popular.

This runs parallel with what Andrei Lankov has observed with regard to women’s domination of the informal economy or “black” markets (Lankov 2014) and what Dalton et al has observed through the female donju (“money masters”) sit atop a political economy of disposable income/profit, fashion, and a gendered cosmopolitanism that all define competitive aspirationalism that runs coterminous with the kind of style indicated by the coffee shop menu discussed above. Indeed, Dalton writes of what we call an “aspirational cosmopolitanism” in terms of female fashion and the “agentic mode” in relation to North Korea:

…it seems clear that the Kim Jong Un period has ushered in a new fashion phenomenon: one where women are more openly concerned with fashion and more willing to push the boundaries in their fashion choices. What is noteworthy is the depth of women’s commitment to this endeavour. None of our interviewees were rich, yet they were eager to spend what little money they had on cosmetics, high heels and bright clothes, even though such outfits were unsuitable for the physical demands of their daily lives, which involved walking long distances, running market stalls and doing most, if not all, of the housework. Cvajner (2011) describes this as “beauty-as-effort”, a shared understanding among women that the key to success is to pursue the feminine ideal. As she notes, such effort and displays of hyper-femininity actually improve a woman’s prospects as a prospective partner, wife and mother, providing “the best proof of their moral standing, thus making them perfect candidates for such roles” (Cvajner, 2011, p. 367). We believe that this insight is also applicable to the hyper-feminine women of North Korea and their agentic mode of dressing for social success. (Dalton et al 2017, 14)

Indeed, the importance Dalton et al attaches to an “agentic” view of the meaning of North Korean women’s sartorial vigor in the face of official disdain for it, as well as other consumptive choices, is exactly the kind of emphasis Hodder is referring to in his post-processual approach to any theoretical regard for items of material culture. In this way, a methodological approach to closely reads items of North Korean popular culture as rich cultural texts, when sone so linked to other points in a consilient analysis, can yield some crucial critical insights in unexpected places and ways that can broaden the understanding of a country and culture so relatively cut off from the rest of the world.

The Significance of Pretty and Impractical High Heel Shoes in North Korea

Fig. 6 — Style in the sartorial realm is easiest to track as discrete memes, In this case, as the “Mary Jane Stiletto” style that was arguably the most popular shoe in Seoul, South Korea in 2017.

Dalton et al reports that a “‘capitalist’ hyper-femininity” has taken hold as marked by significant sartorial choices such as the high heel shoes, designer purses, and more internationally fashionable clothing, from on high in cases such as First Lady Ri Sol-Ju and the “girl group” Moranbang, down to everyday North Korean female informants.(Dalton et al 2017, 11) Indeed, one might be tempted to see such seeming violation of the North Korean socialist utopian tendency to see clothing in a purely functional way as a dangerous flouting of socialized state norms, but even North Korea’s ur-founder Kim Il-sung espoused wildly contradictory views on femininity as an imperative to display the natural beauty of Korean women on the one hand and the need to adhere to revolutionary ideals of equality and utility to the state on the other. (Dalton et al 2017, 6)

Fig. 7 — A hit fashion item in Seoul in 2017, 7-centimeter “Kirsten Mary Jane Stiletto” heels were also found on our fashionable tour guide in Pyongyang. Photo courtesy of Lesly Parker.

Indeed, the conclusion of this paper can best be summed up by an image of a Pyongyang woman in her best, formal finery.

This Pyongyang woman in 2015 is the very picture of the new aspirational cosmopolitanism that mixes impractical and formerly “flashy” high heels with the accoutrements of consumer capitalism that are claims to Distinction. Photo courtesy of Lesly Parker.

Contrary to conventional wisdom about women’s social status in the North, many women do not perceive of themselves as caught inside a contradiction between the socialist ideals of ideal, socialist womanhood on the one hand and a secret desire to illicitly stand out socio-sartorially on the other, which would constitute a desire that is somehow against the interests of the North Korean state and society. Instead, what we are beginning to observe is a more complex and nuanced social equilibrium in which older notions of ideal, socialist womanhood are counterbalanced by a notion of traditional, Korean femininity that is acceptable to express in decidedly modern ways. This is a new synthesis that has produced an aspirational cosmopolitanism in North Korean women that speaks to the new power of markets, an increase in women’s social power and status, and the advent of a quietly growing sense of globality in the North Korean imagination.

The paper’s goal was to theoretically lay the groundwork for further explorations into the idea of an “aspirational cosmopolitanism” as both mode and marker of North Korean style. While several examples of material culture, parsed and understood as they were through the theoretical lens of Hodder’s way of doing ethnoarchaeology, were useful as a means to understand the significance of gendered consumption patterns in North Korea, the present paper hopes to be the beginning of further ethnoarchaeological and ethnographic approaches to understanding material culture in the increasingly less inaccessible north. It is my hope that as the North increasingly opens its doors and society to the closer scrutiny of outsiders, the increased amount of social data and items of material culture can be inserted into the theoretical framework of our argument to either bolster or otherwise work to hone its veracity by pointing out its flaws. Only time and increased engagement with the North will bear out this study’s claims. As this is only the beginning of a larger study, and will fit into the data generated by the inevitable others to follow, we hope that the theoretical assertions of this paper will be but the seed that can grow into a larger endeavor that will bear even more bountiful fruit in the field.

Deconstructing Korea

A theoretical consideration of Korean pop culture and society.

Michael Hurt

Written by

A visual sociologist writing, teaching, and shooting in Seoul since 2002.

Deconstructing Korea

A theoretical consideration of Korean pop culture and society.

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