Tracing freedom to a pair of jeans. The road to liberty was paved in denim for those North Korean defectors.

Last May, in one of those reports that seemed both unbelievable and yet too tantalizing to ignore, there was a flurry of excitement in numerous Western newspapers over the supposed news that Kim Jong-un, the autocratic ruler of North Korea, had issued an official edict banning ripped or skinny jeans.

Though it turned out to be a hyperbolic version of outdated news, three defectors who live in South Korea said the idea of jeans as symbolizing a kind of rebellion for a changing future for those living in North Korea is not as far-fetched as it might seem.

''When I lived in North Korea, I never had the freedom to wear what I wanted, but I never questioned it because I didn't know this freedom existed,'' said Jihyun Kang, 31, who grew up in Chngjin, the third-largest city in North Korea.

Ms. Kang first glimpsed that freedom when she was vacationing at Mount Paektu and saw a foreign tourist. ''I was convinced that he was homeless because only beggars wore torn clothes in North Korea,'' she said. ''but my father told me that it was expensive for foreigners to visit North Korea and he supposed that the jeans were ripped as a form of style.''

Ms. Kand said it was the first time in her life she pondered that word ''style'' - and the question sent her  toward broader interrogations about her identity and the meaning of personal liberation that ultimately led to her decision to leave her home country.

And she is not alone. Kang Nara, a 23-year-old social media star, and Yoon Miso, a 32-year-old image consultant, both of whom left North Korea for South Korea, trace their routes to freedom to fashion. Now they're trying to help others understand just how powerful clothes can be.

What is fashion in North Korea?

While little information is available about North Korea's fashion industry, styles across the nation vary significantly from one province to another and from one social class to another.

In Pyongyang, for example, the intensely monitored capital where the elite live, fashion looks very different from its expression in the rest of the country, an estimated 60 percent of whose population live in absolute poverty.

North Korean citizens were once provided state rations of clothes - two piece, uniform-like outfits in limited solid colors - but when the economy collapsed in the mid-1990s, people developed their own system of local markets, and there has been a wider range of options ever since.

Market vendors initially sold whatever they could farm, cook or sew at home, but as of 2017 there were 440 official markets stocked mostly with Chinese imports, including food, household goods and apparel.

There is also an active black market, with items like makeup, ''prohibited clothing'' and USB sticks containing foreign media. Defectors say true fashionistas get to know private sellers and buy the riskiest items in their homes.

Laws and punishment in North Korea are not public, so it's unclear which garments and accessories are illegal. Instead, there are directives prohibiting ''items that represent capitalist ideas'' outlined in Rodong Sinmun, the country's state-run newspaper.

Organizations like the Socialist Patriotic Youth League [S.P.Y.L.] have long interpreted this to include miniskirts, shirts with English lettering and various types of jeans, and have policed the public accordingly.

For decades, those daring to dress outside the box faced public shaming or imprisonment if caught. Kang Nara remembered a time, for instance, when she had to beg a patrol officer to spare her from a shaming session after she was caught wearing a white denim pants [she succeeded].

''If I wanted to wear something like a pair of jeans, I had to sneak around,'' Ms. Kang, the social media star, said. ''I'd take a back-alley streets, or I'd hide if I saw a patrol officer coming my way.''

Ms. Yoon, who is from Hyesan, said she got her first pair of jeans - blue bell bottoms - at a private dealer's house when she was 14. ''One day, I paired the jeans with a brightly colored top and got caught,'' she said.

An S.P.Y.L. officer cut up her jeans at a public shaming session, she said, and he had her beg publicly for giveness and notified her school, where she was lectured on the dangers of ''capitalist, bourgeois ideas.''

In 2009, at the age of 20, Ms. Yoon moved to China and lived there for two years before moving to South Korea in 2011. ''To me, fashion is freedom and I left North Korea because I wanted to be able to wear what I wanted,'' she said.

 The Publishing continues to Part 2 in the future. The World Students Society thanks author Hahna Yoon.


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