SEOUL, South Korea—Follow the leader on whatever he says—just don’t imitate his dress style. That’s the lesson to be drawn from reports that North Korean authorities are busy ordering people to stop wearing discount leather jackets that look like the high-end coats that Kim Jong Un has been photographed wearing while cheering on missile tests and ordering his people to work harder to overcome the county’s grave economic difficulties.
While most of North Korea’s 25 million citizens cannot afford more than the simplest garb, leather jackets reminiscent of the country’s all-powerful dictator have become the go-to fashion in the capital of Pyongyang and other cities where members of the upper crust of military officers, government officials and members of the ruling Workers’ Party live and work.
“Authorities in North Korea are cracking down on residents wearing leather trench coats,” Radio Free Asia, a U.S.government-funded news operation with extensive sources in North Korea, is reporting. They’re saying “it is disrespectful to emulate the fashion choices of the country’s leader.”
The crackdown comes as Kim approaches the tenth anniversary since he assumed power after the death of his long-ruling father, Kim Jong Il, on December 17, 2011. Since then he's been photographed in fashionable suits, sports shirts and headgear, often worn only once and never seen again. Nothing, however, has caught the imagination of North Koreans so much as the iconic long leather coats that make him at once a macho figure, sporting and prosperous, as well as a fashion leader.
The identity of Kim Jong Un’s tailoring staff—presumably there’s more than one tailor—has never been revealed, but their style has been copied everywhere in North Korea, made rather coarsely at factories in the country or fabricated in China and smuggled across the Yalu or Tumen River borders.
“Leather trench coats became popular in 2019 after Kim appeared on TV wearing one,” RFA reported. “At first, real leather coats imported from China were snapped up by rich people who could afford them, but soon garment makers began to import fake leather to make them domestically.”
The high fashion trend reached an apotheosis of sorts at the military parade of the 8th Party Congress last January when Kim and assorted toadies on the reviewing stand were all wearing look-alike leather coats. Even kid sister Kim Yo Jong was swathed in one, setting a trend that caught on among well-to-do women as well as men.
It all got a bit much, however, when hundreds of lower-ranking types were seen wearing shoddy copies. Who do they think they are? Some felt it gave the impression they were almost mocking the ruling elite. It was as though suddenly the less fortunate had found a way to satirize their leaders without getting sent to prison or even tortured and executed.
“To put a stop to the cheap imitations, and the cheap imitators who wear them,” said RFA, “literal fashion police patrol the streets to confiscate the jackets from sellers and citizens sporting the look.”
No doubt one reason for the extreme image sensitivity is that Kim Jong Un has been the target of much speculation as his weight descended from over 300lbs to an estimated 260lbs in recent months.
It was too easy for people to joke about his crew of tailors working overtime to make new outfits, including leather jackets, every time he dropped a pound or two. Considering he’s only five feet eight inches tall even with platform soles, he is still way too heavy, and analysts have been split over whether he’s embarked on a diet or if he’s really in ill health.
RFA quoted a source as saying “wearing clothes designed to look like the highest Dignity is an impure trend to challenge the authority of the highest Dignity.” The police, according to the source, “instructed the public not to wear leather coats because it is part of the party's directive to decide who can wear them.”
Lately, Kim has been ordering missile tests and making sure the nuclear complex 60 miles north of Pyongyang keeps churning out nuclear warheads and figures out how to install the ones it’s got on the tip of missiles capable of reaching the U.S.
While Kim lectures his people on the urgent need to buttress the impoverished economy, 38North, an authoritative website at the Stimson Center in Washington, cited satellite imagery proving that the nuclear reactor at the facility is still going full blast. The evidence, said 38North, was steam “emanating from the reactor’s generator hall” even as “water continues to be discharged from the auxiliary pipe.”
Kim has yet to show signs of giving up his nuclear program despite the joint statement signed by him and Donald Trump at their summit in Singapore in June 2018 pledging to work toward “denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula.
North Korea’s nuclear program is now a bone of contention in South Korea’s current presidential campaign. Lee Jae-myuing, candidate of the ruling Minjkoo or Democratic Party, told journalists for foreign news agencies Thursday that the U.S. and South Korea may “have to make certain concessions,” notably easing up on sanctions against the North, in order to reach a new deal on denuclearization.
Lee’s relatively soft-line approach contrasts with that of the conservative People Power Party candidate, Yoon Seok-youl, who has said sanctions must remain in place until North Korea gets rid of its nuclear program. Yoon has also supported U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises while Lee has criticized them.
Lee also criticized Trump for trying to resolve too many problems at once in his three meetings with Kim. “The nuclear issue is intertwined with multiple issues,” he said, “so trying to find an approach all at once was indeed impossible.”
Meanwhile, the nuclear program remains at the top of Kim’s agenda even as he looks for funds and resources to resolve economic problems. Some of his proudest moments have occurred when ordering and then witnessing missile tests while wearing the leather coats that are now intrinsic in his popular image.