Editor’s Note: CNN Style has launched a dedicated Beauty section. Read more Beauty stories here.
Aspiring actress Nara Kang puts on a coral red lipstick and gently rubs orange blush onto her cheeks, the white glitter swept under her eyes sparkling as she tilts her head in the light.
Kang would never have been able to do this back home in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province.
“Putting on red lipstick is unimaginable in North Korea,” she says. “The color red represents capitalism and that may be why North Korean society does not let you wear it.”
Kang now lives in Seoul, South Korea. The 22-year-old fled North Korea in 2015 to escape a regime that restricted her personal freedoms, from what she wore to how she tied her hair.
Most people in Kang’s hometown were only allowed to wear a light tint on their lips – sometimes pink but never red – and long hair had to be tied up neatly or braided, she says.
Kang would walk through alleys instead of main roads to avoid encountering the “Gyuchaldae,” North Korea’s so-called fashion police.
“Whenever I put on makeup, older people in the village would say that I’m a rascal smeared with capitalism,” recalls Kang. “There was a patrol unit every 10-meters to crackdown on pedestrians for their looks.”
“We weren’t allowed to wear accessories like this,” she says, pointing at her silver rings and bracelets. “Or dye our hair and let it loose like this,” she gestures to her wavy locks.
According to two defectors CNN interviewed for this story, who left the regime between 2010 and 2015, wearing clothes perceived as “too Western” such as miniskirts, shirts with written English and tight jeans, can be subject to small fines, public humiliation or punishment – though the rules vary in different regions.
Depending on the alleged offense or the patrol unit, the defectors said some offenders were made to stand in the middle of a town’s square and endure harsh criticism from officers. Others were ordered to perform hard labor.
“Many women are instructed or advised by (their) house, school or organization to wear tidy clothes and (have a) clean appearance,” explains Nam Sung-wook, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University.
They may have been living in one of the world’s most restrictive states, but Kang says she and other North Korean millennials still kept up with fashion trends outside the country.
It’s easy, she says, if you know where to look.
Black market culture
Translated as “marketplace,” Jangmadang is the name given to the local North Korean markets that sell everything from fruit, clothing and household products. They started prospering during the great famine in the 1990s when people realized they couldn’t depend on government rations.
Many North Koreans still shop at these markets for daily necessities, but they are also the source of illegal products smuggled into the country. Foreign content, including movies, music videos, and soap operas, is copied onto USB drives, CDs or SD Cards in South Korea or China and smuggled into North Korea, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry.
This is also a method that many human rights organizations use to send in information challenging the regime.
“North Korean young urbanites are getting culture from the outside world,” says Sokeel Park, South Korea country director of research and strategy for human rights group Liberty in North Korea.
“This has an effect even in fashion trends, hair styles and beauty standards inside North Korea,” adds Park. “If young North Koreans watch South Korean TV programs, they may want to change their hair or clothes to what South Koreans look like.”
Before she fled North Korea in 2010, defector and now jewelry designer Joo Yang says she and her friends used to visit the Jangmadang markets to find USB sticks with films and popular music videos from South Korea.
At the market, Yang says female smugglers would talk in a distinct Seoul accent to attract the attention of young women who had already been exposed to South Korean culture. Sometimes merchants would take customers to their homes where there would be rooms full of clothes and cosmetics, according to Yang.
South Korean cosmetics were two to three times more expensive than North Korean or Chinese-made products, she says. She had to pay two weeks’ worth of rice to purchase a single mascara or lipstick from South Korea.
The marketplace is so popular with millennials that they are referred as the “Jangmadang generation,” says Park, who produced a documentary by the same name examining the lives of young North Koreans and their impact on society.
The famine disrupted the schooling system, so many of the Jangmadang generation literally grew up shopping in the markets, and have a greater insight into capitalism than previous generations, he adds.
Yang says she has seen the style of women in North Korea evolve based on the looks of popular K-dramas.
“If young North Koreans watch South Korean TV programs, then they may want to change their hair or clothes to what South Koreans look like. So this has an effect on fashion trends, hairstyles and beauty standards in North Korea,” says Park. He adds fashion and beauty trends extend beyond the surface, they signal an implicit change within the society.
North Korea’s beauty industry
Despite the absence of internationally-recognized North Korean cosmetics brands, North Korea’s state media KCNA claims its cosmetics industry is thriving. In November, Pyongyang hosted a national cosmetics show where “more than 137,000 beauty products” were presented, including “new soaps to help remove waste matter from skin and functional cosmetics (to help) blood circulation, beauty goods and anti-aging cosmetics” according to KCNA.
Kim Jong Un is building on the legacy of his grandfather, North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung who created the country’s first cosmetics factory in 1949. Kim Il Sung, who had previously used cosmetics to boost the morale of female soldiers in Manchuria during the battle with Japan, realized the power of beauty in changing people’s minds early on. Following his footsteps, the younger Kim is investing in state-run brands Unhasu and Bomhyanggi to develop the “world’s best cosmetics,” state news agency KCNA reported in 2017.
The recent push to develop the domestic cosmetic industry comes amid deepening international sanctions, which have made it even more difficult for North Korea to import high-quality ingredients and products, according to Professor Nam.
Nam said Kim saw also an opportunity in the growing popularity of South Korean beauty products to produce his own version of Korean cosmetics for export, taking inspiration from the packaging of South Korean products as well as their popular ingredients like ginseng.
Earlier this year, KCNA reported that the domestic Sinuiju cosmetics factory had “developed various functional cosmetics like eyelashes growth serums and beauty masks for acne treatment,” and was exporting them to other countries like Russia and China.
‘Beauty is freedom’
Locally-made cosmetics might be readily available in North Korea, but they don’t have the same cache or variety as foreign brands.
People who wear smuggled foreign cosmetics are not only experimenting with their own looks, but trying to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable in North Korea, Park said.
“You are wearing clothes that you are not really supposed to, which has been influenced by illegal foreign media,” he said. “Then you’re signaling to your community and to your friends that you are kind of different and willing to break these rules that are at least low level.”
Pyongyang’s attempts to control citizens’ personal choices can only go so far, wrote North Korean culture expert at Dong-A University, Professor Dong-wan Kang, in a government-commissioned paper on the topic of South Korea’s influence on the hermit kingdom.
“Although North Korean authorities crack down on fashion and hairstyles of the so-called decadent culture of capitalism, there is a limit to the total control of their citizens’ desire and needs,” writes Kang.
“Following South Korean influences on clothing, makeup and hair disrupts everyday expectations and can lead to dissatisfaction and skepticism about the North Korean regime. Mimicking South Korea, they are deviating from the society and it shows that a subculture has been formed as a factor of regime resistance.”
Both Yang and Nara Kang say in South Korea they are able to express themselves in a way they weren’t allowed to before.
“When I first went to a cosmetics store in South Korea, I swear I thought I went to a toy store in North Korea because there was a huge variety of colors like toys,” recalls Kang.
“For me, beauty is freedom,” she says. “Now I have more ownership over my beauty.”
Yang said a lot of her friends in North Korea were enraged by not being able to dress the way they wanted.
“We are brainwashed by the North Korean government, so we still like the Supreme Leader, but the desire to look pretty is another issue,” says Yang. “The anger starts building up inside you, questioning why shouldn’t I do it?”
Park, who works with a lot of newly arrived defectors in South Korea, foresees a bigger change that beauty can bring in North Korean society.
The activist explains that the government has become aware of the younger generation rebelling against state-approved culture. This is pushing them to adapt and to allow some degree of flexibility in order to maintain power.
“It basically forces the government to answer the question: Are they going to go with this change or are they just going to try and repress (it)?”
CNN’s Charlie Miller and Momo Moussa contributed to the video.