On the surface, it looks like an idiot news story. Who the heck cares if the First Lady of North Korean, Ri Sol-Ju was spotted with a Christian Dior purse worth more than the yearly income of most North Koreans. But this young lady’s frequent appearances in the North Korean press are a very risky move for Leader Kim Jung Un.
Here in the West, we are accustomed to designer labels on First Ladies and Royals. We expect to read “who” Kate or Michelle is wearing, or see speculation on whether Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad has topped former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos at collecting designer shoes. But you have to be a certain age to remember that true communist countries don’t get into the “who is she wearing” game because the last bloody thing the leaders want is for the dear comrades in the ditches to think their leaders’ wives are any better off than they are. The first great crack in the Soviet Union was not Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of detente, but the clothes his wife, Raisa, wore in public. All of the Soviet Union’s previous first ladies had dressed in shapeless, colorless matronly clothing that resembled something Harvey Korman wore when he did drag routines or Vicki Lawrence wore as Mama on The Carol Burnett Show, even to state dinners. That is, if one ever saw them at all. Communism has always been a boy’s club.
Never standing out, never looking fashionable or modern was essential for both the leaders and their wives in communist countries. All comrades are supposed to be equal, with none of them more equal than any others. This is why Chinese communists all wore Mao suits and Soviet communists wore the worst fitting grey suits one could buy off the rack. It is also why Kim Jung Il went to such extreme lengths to hide his wives and mistresses and his sons’ lifestyles. Even their military uniforms are dull and tacky looking.
Ri Sol-Ju is not ill-dressed or dull or matronly. She favors classical looks, but they fit well and look well-tailored. Nothing flashy, but certainly more colorful and Western than the clothes being worn by female factory workers in North Korea. And a Dior purse, even if it is a knockoff, with the designer logo clearly visible in photos printed by the official press, is totally outside the norm.
This is a very risky move for Kim Jung-Un. He is risking what happened to Mikhail Gorbachev, when the young men and women of the Soviet Union discovered the world outside, a world of fashion and jewelry, rock music and non-propaganda television. He is risking a revolution that would start with television signals from South Korea or Japan being intercepted and bounced into his isolated country, begins with smuggled fashion magazines and illegal hacking into internet sites.
Or, his wife’s presence at his side and her appearance, are a signal that Kim Jung-Un’s firing of his father’s top military man was just the beginning of opening North Korea to the world, joining the 21st century.
Everyone’s attention has been on the revolutions in the Middle East against dictators who were clients of the Cold War, replacements for the occupying armies of Europe, but the events in Myanmar, economic reforms in Vietnam, China and Cuba show that the wave of rebellion is not being ignored elsewhere. Dictators can choose to lead the charge to reform or be trampled by it. They can assure their countries of a stable transition, or allow them to fall into chaos. With Kim Jung-Un, the evidence of choice may be something as small as a Dior handbag.