[Viewpoint] Slacks and ‘in-betweeners’

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[Viewpoint] Slacks and ‘in-betweeners’

Even a reclusive state like North Korea has its set of buzzwords and one of them this year was “in-betweeners.” They are a group betwixt and between traditional social and political strata. The word is not entirely new. It has been used to describe nonconforming groups outside the social structure or can be a critical reference to hypocrites in the elite intelligent class, whose stated beliefs conflict with their actual behavior.

A cliche that hasn’t been used by ordinary people for a long time has come back into vogue with a new meaning. The in-betweeners are now a sizable group of shadowy smugglers and entrepreneurs who have skirted rigid state controls to build private fortunes. Their emergence, and the need for a nickname, shows the mushrooming of the private sector.

The top-selling fashion item among North Korean women this year was slacks. North Korean women have long favored skirts that fall below the knee. Their fashion sense was defined by their adored leader Kim Jong-il’s comment that women look best in skirts.

Trousers were never formerly banned. But the overworked loyalty and reverence to the beloved general led to a rigid disapproval of trousers. Authorities also disliked the symbolic images of women in trousers driving capitalist enterprises and seeking modernization. Together with trousers, women were forbidden to ride bicycles and engage in market activities.

But as the private market grew, so did the voice of women, the main players in the fashion market. The censure on trousers slowly receded. In August, the party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun carried an article approving of “neat” trousers, formally giving approval. North Korean women now roam the streets in pants. Some were fortunate to get their hands on high-end South Korean slacks smuggled through China.

New social stratification and women’s slacks epitomize significant changes in the tightly controlled North Korean society.

The impetus behind the change is the growing market. Authorities are nervous about these changes, especially because they come at a politically sensitive transitional period. The “powerful” nation Kim Jong-il regime promised to create by 2012 is a society firmly rooted in state-controlled socialism.

But the socialist bedrock is eroding and the seeds of capitalism are sprouting. The bizarre third-generation power transfer is idealized to uphold the unique North Korean-style socialist society through the founding family’s blood. But in the real world, the consumer market rises above state control.

Uncontrollable social changes may have had a part in the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. North Korea has every reason to be hard-line. By creating tension and fear, authorities can fortify their power over society and stave off potential protests to the father-to-son power transfer. It can also send a warning to the outside world not to threaten or manipulate the society during a very vulnerable period, as an ailing leader prepares to hand off power to a twenty-something inexperienced son.

China’s emphasis on stability on the Korean Peninsula also validates Pyongyang’s hard-line stance. The more North Korea turns aggressive, the more China will have to provide support to keep the regime stable. Moreover, a military offense may have been necessary to build credentials for the young heir-in-waiting.

But just because North Korea has all the motives to toughen up, it needn’t have gone so far as firing artillery shells at civilian territory. The only explanation we can infer is that the North Korean leadership had desperate reasons to resort to extreme measures.

In addressing North Korea, we should be both responsive and defensive.

To military provocations, we must respond thoroughly and sternly. At the same time, we must take steps to address possible dramatic changes on the peninsula and their repercussions on our national interests.

President Lee Myung-bak warned of retaliatory actions if North Korea strikes again. The new defense minister also promised to take immediate and tough actions against future provocations.

But equally important is a sophisticated crisis control system. The government should take pains to fend off unnecessary conflict in our society and keep North Korea’s provocations from affecting our economy and society. Managing external relations is also crucial. South Korea must step up efforts to strengthen ties with China.

Most of all, authorities should take necessary steps in line with the changes in North Korea.

Once the in-betweeners become main players in the society and women flaunt their legs in jeans and mini-skirts, Pyongyang’s control system will crumble and unification may be that much closer.

*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.

By Cho Dong-ho
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