In February 2011, when Vogue magazine published a fawning profile of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad, I asked the story's editor whether his magazine would consider profiling the wife of North Korean then-dictator Kim Jong Il. I assumed he would answer "no," opening a conversation on what, in Vogue's view, makes Syria's ruling family fair game. To my surprise -- I was young and innocent then -- he did not rule out an equivalent profile of North Korea's first lady. "That's the kind of hypothetical that -- we really do that on a case-by-case basis," he said.
Vogue is apparently not alone in seeing the Democratic People's Republic of Korea as an appropriate subject for fashion-related coverage. Elle magazine, in an article posted today on its Web site, names "North Korea Chic" as one of its "top fashion trends" for the autumn of 2013. Just in case the article disappears mysteriously from Elle's site, just as the Asma al-Assad profile did from Vogue's site when backlash mounted, here is a screenshot of the first page on North Korea Chic:
As an example of North Korea Chic, Elle points to a pair of designer camouflage pants that sell for $425. (The average North Korean is thought to make about $4 per day.)
Elle's creative director, Joe Zee, writes that "North Korea Chic" is known for its "take no prisoners tailoring," which is presumably not a play on North Korea's practice of kidnapping foreign civilians and holding them captive for years or decades at a time. Zee compares it favorably to other military-themed fashion trends, adding that North Korea Chic is "edgier, even dangerous."
Most Americans probably do not associate North Korea with upscale clothing, although they certainly do identify it with militarism. The country is best known in the United States for its military brinkmanship, which includes a rogue nuclear-weapons program, frequent (if empty) threats to turn the United States into a "sea of fire" and occasionally killing citizens and soldiers of South Korea, with which it is still technically at war.
North Korea is also closely associated with its treatment of its own civilians, unknown thousands of whom are thought to live in vast prison camps, sent there sometimes for crimes no more serious than having a distant relative flee the country. The words "North Korea" are practically synonymous with "human rights abuses," which makes it an odd choice for Elle's list of fashion trends. That multiple staffers at the magazine would presumably see this item going through production without thinking to stop it makes one wonder whether they are unaware of North Korea's reputation or simply don't see it as important enough to get in the way of their clever fashion coinage.
Still, it's only fashion, and perhaps it's easy for foreign policy observers to take ourselves too seriously. What's really wrong with winking at North Korean militarism to sell $400 pants? For that matter, why not a line of footwear by Pol Pot? Or grooming tips by Stalin? Maybe affix Mao's name to next month's diet plan?
My one complaint is that I wish Elle had run this item on Monday, before my interview that afternoon with a young man who escaped several years ago from North Korea to find a new life in, he hopes, the United States. I would have been curious to hear a North Korean defector's thoughts on North Korean Chic.