North Korea's New Image Shaped by Platform Shoes, Earrings and Cell Phones

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Another popular policy change that Kim pushed to win hearts was the lifting of the ban on women wearing pants in public.

"The rule was proposed by Kim to his father in 2010. That marked the beginning of a fashion revolution in North Korea," said Dong.

The only times women had been allowed to wear pants were when they were working in factories or in the fields. Any women walking the streets in pants were subject to a police warning or a penalty.

"If caught, sometimes they would cut your pants right there in public to make it into a skirt," said Park Ye-Kyong who defected to the South in 2004. But even when the tough restrictions applied, women did not stop pursuing fashion, including getting their hair permed or dyed.

"Yes, we were hungry but desire to look beautiful lies in any woman," Park explained shyly in her new home in Seoul.

North Korean women spotted wearing skinny jeans and earrings often make news in South Korean media because such items were known to be confiscated in the name of being too capitalist. But the trend has been visible in the past few years, and now platform shoes are in demand.

"The heels make legs look longer," explained Dong.

Platforms ranked second out of 10 most popular items in North Korean society last year, according to analysis by the Samsung Economic Research Institute. The study is based on what average North Koreans acquired using information from defectors, press and other sources.

"The international media tends to show the privileged in Pyongyang, or the hunger-stricken poor in the northern regions. But our standard in choosing what's hot there was strictly focusing on daily realistic lives of average families," explained Dong.

There is no way to determine how large a percentage of North Koreans can afford new products or how widespread their availability. The government has always maintained that all citizens are equal.

According to the Institute's analysis the number one hit item was coal briquettes commonly used as fuel in households. After Kim Jong Un announced a "prosperous great nation" as his inaugural pledge, the regime pumped up production of coal in massive amounts to export in exchange for Chinese goods that improve living standards.

But the study also found that these coals, easily made into briquettes, were smuggled out to North Korea's black markets pushing down prices.

The no. 3 hit item behind briquettes and platform shoes were mobile phones. Subscribers to Egypt's Orascom, North Korea's sole network provider, will soon reach one million this year. In reality, many more in bordering towns possess mobile phones illegally purchased in China.

Park's elder sister residing in the North owns a mobile and regularly communicates with Park in the South when making bi-monthly business trips to the Chinese border. The siblings have been meeting each other each year or two in China. Park said that each time they meet she takes items her sister requests, such as dresses and platform shoes.

"My sister tells me that now there's even an Italian pizza parlor and cafes in her home town... and my toddler nephew just had his first real western birthday cake from a new bakery, not the one made of rice," said Park showing pictures of her sister's family.

Kim Jong Un reportedly ordered an increase in the number of licenses for privately-run restaurants to make cities appear robust and lively.

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