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

North Korea's new leader is trying to shed his nation's backward image.

July 2, 2012, 3:22 PM

SEOUL, South Korea July 2, 2012— -- Attempting to forge a new image for himself and his country, North Korea's youthful supreme leader Kim Jong Un is allowing women to wear pants, platform shoes and earrings, making more mobile phones available, endorsing previously banned foods like pizza, French fries and hamburgers — and he's giving kids free trips to zoos and amusement parks.

The 20-something leader's focus has been on the younger generation. Following in the footsteps of his late grandfather, the country's founder Kim Il Sung, he has announcing plans to create a "children's heaven nation."

"It's all part of his image making to imitate a warm, fatherly impression like his grandfather," said Dong Yong-Sueng, North Korea specialist at Samsung Economic Research Institute.

Kim Jong Un, who officially assumed the title of supreme leader on Dec. 28 last year following the state funeral of his father Kim Jong Il, wants to establish an image that harkens back to what some North Koreans nostalgically remember as better times in the 1970s under his grandfather, a time when the country was economically backed by the Soviet Union with sufficient food to feed the nation.

Kim Jong Un's father, who had ruled since1994, was seen as a strong but cold leader.

The image of the supreme leader has significance in a tightly controlled society where people often refer to their leaders as the father of the nation with "everlasting love," as well as other fanciful names like the sun, universe, eternal general, or dear leader.

Kim Jong Un has publicly sought to embrace the youthful energy of the country.

"The powerful and prosperous Korea of the future in which you will be the masters, will be a most powerful countrywhere every home will be full of laughter and everybody lives in harmony," he announced to a crowd of 20,000 children invited to Pyongyang at a ceremony marking the 66th anniversary of the Korean Children's Union earlierthis month. The union is a state-run organization for nine to 14-year-olds.

The invited children, handpicked by party officials, were given opportunities to visit zoos, amusement parks, and attend concerts. Crowds of enthusiastic kids were seen pledging allegiance, shouting, and crying at the sight of their new leader, who wore the children's symbolic red scarf.

Kim, educated in Switzerland during his early teens, has initiated numerous policy changes to allow people more freedom and entertainment in their daily lives. North Korean state TV last month showed an image of Kim in a straw hat with a huge smile paying a visit to Mangyongdae Amusement Park and pointing at its roller coaster.

The park had recently imported new rides from France. Kim, the report said, ordered the managers to keep the rides up and running at all times and to upgrade its electronic video game arcades for citizens, especially children. Kim was also seen browsing through the park's fast food restaurant that sells hamburgers and French fries.

In the past, such delights were considered too western and were banned. But now they're endorsed by the party. "These facilities are eternal gifts to the people by our great leader," state TV reported.

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.

"Lots of choices now exist if you are rich enough in North Korea," she said. Witnesses say people are now learning toenjoy coffee, a rare drink in a country where self-reliance and therefore "strictly Korean home-grown products" remain at the center of its socialist values.

The most popularly available brand is Maxim's instant coffee mix, made in South Korea. The coffee is smuggled into the North via China.

Another widely consumed South Korean product is the Choco-pie, a chocolate covered mini-cake filled with marshmallows. Most of them slip out from Gaesong Industrial Park just above the North-South border, where South Korean factories employ 50,000 North Korean laborers. Each worker is given two to three Choco-pies as daily snacks, but most workers save the sweets to sell on the black market.

"That means 100,000 to 150,000 Choco-pies slither into the black market every day. Choco-pies are like money to these people," Park said.

These changes in food and fashion that Kim Jong Un seems to be embracing are the result of the impact of foreign culture and information. The sweet taste of capitalism has been spreading at a cost to a traditionally paranoid regime that has attempted to barricade its population from foreign influence.

But a substantial portion of the North Korean people now have access to information from the outside world through foreign TV, radio and DVD players, easily smuggled in. The spread of USBs and MP4s containing popular South Korean shows or dramas have been viral, and awareness of the outside world has grown exponentially, according to a recent study released by InterMedia Survey.