Jang Hye-won, Ph.D.CandidateUniversity of North Korean Studies There is a saying in South Korea that, “Good shoes take you to good places.” However, there is a popular belief in North Korea that if you buy shoes for a lover, they will run away. So, when dating, it is considered taboo to buy shoes for your partner. However, everyone knows that people who leave you will do so even if you did not buy them shoes, and people who stay by your side will do so whether you buy them shoes or not. Much like we people from Asia don't usually know from which country a European person comes simply by looking at their appearance, people coming from non-Asian countries generally cannot discern Asian people’s country of origin—particularly the origin of Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese. However, if you look carefully at a person’s clothing, you can take a rough guess. Someone once summarized the fashion characteristics of Korea, China, and Japan as follows. Overall, Korean style is harmonious, dressing neatly and nicely for the occasion. Chinese style is flashy, with designs as diverse and colorful as its population. Japanese style is unconventionally comfortable and cute. Fashion reveals a society's culture. Even though we joke that the summit of fashion is the face, we could also say that one’s footwear completes the look. Because even if students and employees wear the same uniform, their choice of shoes reveals their individuality. North Korean school uniform © Photo courtesy of Yonhap News In North Korea, where totalitarianism and collectivism are strong, students are provided with school uniforms as well as uniform shoes. So, from the beginning of their compulsory education (in total 11 years of elementary, middle, and high school) until college, students in educational institutions wear the same uniforms and shoes. Moreover, unlike in South Korea where each school’s uniform has a different design, all students in North Korea wear uniforms of the same design and color, regardless of the school or region. Perhaps fortunately, students can choose the shoes they like. However, there are only two or three designs, making the choice less meaningful. Middle school students receive uniform shoes in either pink or blue, with or without shoelaces. Despite the limited choice, students are excited to try on their new shoes. As a young person, it feels good to have a sense of shared identity, wearing the same clothes and shoes as others. During North Korea’s severe economic crisis in the mid-to-late nineties, they temporarily suspended supplying school uniforms, although it was still possible for students to receive at least one uniform before graduation. Footwear tends to break or wear down before other parts of the uniform. North Korean roads and public transportation are in especially poor condition, as many South Koreans know, causing shoes to wear out very quickly. So, unlike the other parts of the school uniform, there were no particular regulations for uniform shoes because those supplied would wear out before long. As a result, footwear became a key outlet for individual expression. Shoes in North Korea also indicate one’s economic status. When state-run factories were operational, most people bought shoes made in North Korea through state-run stores. The designs were generally simple, but that was only natural for people living in similar economic conditions. However, after the economic crisis, the divergence in people’s financial power changed how they spent their money. The so-called “new rich” people are able to show off through unique fashion. Shoes are also a way to reveal wealth with subtle certitude. This is the case in a society that requires neat and clean “socialist attire” while giving little attention and ideological energy to shoes. Choice of footwear is dependent on how much one walks each day, the road conditions where one walks, and one’s particular employment. People who farm or work on construction sites cannot wear fancy footwear, and even among office workers, those people who use a “company car” wear different shoes than those who do not. As markets and market mechanisms expanded, there was a rise in demand for shoes in North Korea. Keeping pace with this trend, markets began overflowing with shoes in many colors and designs. Also, the wave of exposure to South Korean popular media that swept North Korea in the early and mid-2000s further stimulated consumer demand. The expression, “Good shoes take you to good places,” showed up in South Korean dramas. In the eyes of North Koreans emerging from an economic crisis, this phrase must have seemed perfectly compatible with affluent South Korea. Educated through those dramas, a new generation of men changed the way they expressed their love. Breaking from the superstition against buying shoes for a partner, they have begun buying beautiful, quality footwear for those they love, adding, “Good shoes take you good places? Wherever these take you, I hope it’s great—and, if they bring you to me, even better.” Fall National Shoe Festival © Photo courtesy of the Rodong Sinmun, Workers’ Party Newspaper / News 1 In recent years, North Korea has not only been developing new brands of shoes, but also hosting regular “Footwear Expos” introducing a range of domestically produced shoes with a variety of designs and functions. But, these are simply exhibitions. Most of the limited supply of shoes available for sale in North Korea are made in China. The quality and reliability of Chinese products tend to be low. People from North Korea would be pleased with the far superior function and quality of shoes made in South Korea. Would wearing good shoes take North Korean people to good places?