choson ot worn by women in North Korea

Shoe diplomacy in North Korea

by Larissa on September 17, 2011

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

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Much has been speculated about North Korea—the government, human rights, the standard of living, etc.—but you rarely see anything about some of the more mundane aspects of life.  On our recent trip to Pyongyang I was intrigued by the day-to-day things seen through the fog of the government propaganda machine. In particular, what do women wear in North Korea?  Something as simple as how they dress can indicate their role in society.

A totalitarian regime does not lend itself to chic. The whole government machine is focused on men—the “Great Leader Kim Il Sung,” his son Kim Jong Il (merely known as “The Dear Leader”) and now Kim Jong Un, the third member of the Leader Dynasty.

North Korea Choson ot Mass Dance Pyongyang

North Korean women break out their Sunday best and finest shoes for the Mass Dance.

Women don’t loom large in this whole scenario.  There are few references to women—only Kim Il Sung’s grandmother (who raised him) and wife (who gave birth to the Dear Leader, then died in 1949) warrant any type of mention in the country’s history.  This is not a matriarchal society.

Given this rather lackluster status, it is hardly surprising that women’s attire here is not exactly fashion-forward.  Think a sort of “Asian-Communism-Meets-the-Stepford-Wives” and you get the general flavor.

The Pyongyang Metro on National Day.

The women tend to dress in one of three ways:  The Choson-ot (the traditional Korean long dress, known in South Korea as the Hanbok), a military uniform, or “regular work clothes”—which kind of looks like typical office wear in the west in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.  Remember the two-piece dresses with a jacket/blouse and a flared mid-calf skirt?  Bam!  You’re in North Korea circa 2012.

Teenagers seem to have a bit more latitude, wearing jeans and Hello Kitty-type t-shirts, but I never saw a woman over about 18 dressed that way.  When I asked our guide about it, she just shrugged and said “that’s kids, when we grow up we dress properly.”   Which is probably not a bad model to follow for grown women everywhere.

Most of what I’ve described above just sort of sounds like a somewhat militaristic society where Vogue, Glamour, Elle (or even Good Housekeeping for that matter) are not distributed or even known about.  It’s the wearing of the Choson-ot where the whole “Stepford Wives” aspect comes into play.

Don’t get me wrong, these are beautiful garments, and remembering one’s heritage is important.  But in North Korea (or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea-DPRK), the Choson-ot seems to be mandatory dress whenever declarations of national pride are required (and that is often in the DPRK).

Bowling in Pyongyang wearing traditional garb

 

Guides at the national monuments all wear this outfit. Even young university women have a sort of abbreviated version:  navy and white with a mid-calf skirt.  It is the featured costume for women in the Arirang Performance (or “Mass Games”) every year.  It is de rigueur for mass impromptu national dancing done on National Day.

When our group visited the mausoleum of “The Great Leader” Kim Il Sung I noticed that the Korean woman all wore their “Sunday Best.” Imagine all of us dressing like Betsy Ross to visit Mount Vernon or the Jefferson Memorial and you get the picture.  In all fairness there is something to be said for dressing your best for an event that is important to you.

North Korea women traditional dress choson ot

Striding off to pay homage at the tomb of Kim Il Sung. 

Here’s the kicker though; for the men, formal dress is considered a shirt and tie.  This is how “The Great Leader” is depicted in official portraits that are plastered on billboards everywhere, and there is nary a dopo (the men’s equivalent to the Choson-ot) to be seen.  It seems some genders are [allowed to be] more progressive than others.

If one were using fashion as an indicator of status—and let’s face it, that’s what fashion is all about—then the fashions in North Korea speak volumes.  Women can be well-attired, but power-dressing is just not in the vernacular.  Except. . . wait for it. . . shoes!  These gals might be wearing Betsy Ross-era clothing, but underneath it all, they are wearing pretty heels (trust me, I checked!) It seems “The Great Leader” either neglected or underestimated “the shoe gene” that is attached to our second X-chromosome.

One of the guides taking us around a historic site was dressed in that ’80s garb I mentioned earlier—but she was wearing the most beautiful pair of bright turquoise suede pumps.  She was formal and subdued throughout the whole tour. At the end, however, when she asked if there were any further questions or comments I asked our interpreter to compliment the guide on her beautiful shoes.

Her transformation was complete and instantaneous.  She became chatty and friendly, and we started comparing shoes.  (Unfortunately I was wearing my rather functional Keen sandals—see more on traveling shoes for women– but it was a great ice breaker).

Now this is the way to break down political barriers.


See more about our trip to North Korea.

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Magsx2 September 17, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Hi,
Really enjoyed reading your post, it must of been fascinating to be able to go into a country such as North Korea. I have read a small amount about the country and of course seen some video’s, but it is nice to read about it from someone that has been there. Good pick up on the shoes. 🙂

Michael September 17, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Yes, Larissa notices that stuff much more than Michael. But I did notice that the men’s shoes were all slip-ons. Laces being one less product they have to supply to the people. Thanks for checking in.

Zena Charokopos September 21, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Enjoyed your post! I know I shouldn’t go there… but I would bet their undergarments are just as pretty as their shoes. It appears that their wild side needs to be hidden!

Michael September 22, 2011 at 12:37 am

Well we never got that far.

Bob Smith September 24, 2011 at 4:54 pm

I’am a friend of Ray’s from the Industrial Diamond business. Your around the world sounds fascinating. I’ve spent a lot of time in S. Korea but never attempted to go north . Sounds really intriging . You and your wife will have unbelievable memories . Enjoy ,Best Bob Smith

Michael September 24, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Sounds like North Korea is a possible trip for you. Thanks for checking in.

Nirmal September 26, 2011 at 4:30 am

I have been reading most of your posts and enjoying it thoroughly and traveling vicariously ( if that is the correct term!). Make sure Mike does not wear out his shoes in these part of the world or he will have to go bare feet!

Terry Lee December 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Really enjoyed this article, so interesting.
North Korea is the country I most want to visit.

hamilton hudson February 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm

i found your site looking up what a “chosen-ot” looked like after reading “The Orphan Masters Son”

Nicole Beck April 24, 2013 at 2:08 am

great post! Thank goodness they have some outlet for creativity. What a journey you are on! Stay safe!

Phyllis Laubacher September 5, 2013 at 1:21 am

Loved your post. I’m obsessed with N. Korea since reading the Orphan Master’s Son. Have never thought of going there until reading this. I’ve been to N. Vietnam and felt the marks of communism and poverty but I doubt the Pyongyang experience would be anything like that. Just the reverse – one would see yangbans and the elites. The persecuted people are out in the fields and in the mines. Did you see any poverty?

Michael September 6, 2013 at 11:37 am

Hello Phyllis,

As you can imagine, a visit to North Korea is done in a controlled environment but it is still possible to interact and read between the lines. Trips head out to the countryside to reveal more than what can be seen in Pyongyang but even the visit to Pyongyang tells some of the backstory. I encourage you to read these other books about North Korea: https://www.changesinlongitude.com/book-reviews-north-korea/

Thank you.

Miriam October 5, 2013 at 11:47 pm

Hi! I have used the last picture for my Soundcloud file on North Korean women, with credits to this site.

Michael October 6, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Thank you so much.

Lan Shin October 18, 2013 at 8:11 am

Hello Michael!
Enjoyed your post even though I come from Seoul, South Korea.
I’ve just found an error in your text so I want you to know that.
We’ve never called this traditional dress “Korean Kimono” nor “Kimono style”. And its correct name in South Korea is “Hanbok”, not “hombok”. We in South Korea wear Hanbok only on special days nowadays, such as wedding or new year holiday.
I like your advanturous life, though! Thumbs up!

Larissa October 21, 2013 at 1:05 am

Thanks for your note, Lan. I’ve made the correction! 🙂

Jeong-Seon,Kim October 23, 2013 at 11:11 am

Hello, I enjoyed your post. It’s very interesting, and I’m from Korea.
I’m really happy you are interested in Korea’s culture.
But I want to tell you something. Paragraph 5, second line, the post were written like this, “the traditional Korean kimono-style garment, known in South Korea as the Hanbok” is wrong.
Hankok is Korea traditional dress. North Korea also wear Hanbok.
Sometimes North Korea call it, Chosŏn-ot .
It is often characterized by vibrant colors and simple lines without pockets. Although the term literally means “Korean clothing”, hanbok today often refers specifically to hanbok of Chosŏn Dynasty and is worn as semi-formal or formal wear during traditional festivals and celebrations.
Throughout history, Korea had a dual clothing tradition, in which rulers and aristocrats adopted different kinds of mixed foreign-influenced indigenous styles, while the commoners continued to use a distinct style of indigenous clothing that today is known as Hanbok.
I want to tell more surable fact to you.
I hope you will understand my comment, thank you.

Larissa October 23, 2013 at 11:32 am

Thank you for your comment, Kim. When we visited North Korea the women I met told me the garment was called Choson-ot. They were from Pyongyang, so maybe that term is more popular in that Northern city, even if it is not historically correct. The colors were definitely vibrant–and quite beautiful. There has been very little information about North Korea, so your comment is very helpful. Maybe you should write a blog about Korean clothing and culture–I would read it! 🙂

JanetS September 25, 2015 at 11:54 am

It is quite surprising that Hanbok in North Korea is not actually called Hanbok but Chosŏn-ot.

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