She escaped North Korea at 20 years old. Not because of hunger or to follow family who have already left; she risked her life and crossed the border to South Korea so she could wear whatever she wanted. It’s a privilege that most take for granted, but a dream for Yoon Mi-so.
Yoon, now 31, loved makeup and clothes from a young age. She grew up in Hyesan, Yanggang Province, a city close to the North Korean border with China, where many sold smuggled goods. Two decades ago, her mother would make a living by sneaking in cloth from China and became somewhat of a trendsetter. Instead of the short, permed hair common among North Korean women at the time, she had the thick, wavy style popular in China. Perhaps because of her mother’s influence, Yoon too, is passionate about beauty and fashion.
Now living in Seoul, she works as a “beauty consultant” to women of all ages. She’s like a stylist, dishing out tips on wardrobe and makeup that will best suit her clients. It’s her dream job, one she would have never achieved had she not left North Korea, where women are told how to present themselves and expected to look just like everyone else. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of South Korea, now known internationally for its street style and massive beauty industry.
VICE visited Yoon’s office in Gimpo, a city close to Seoul, to talk about clothes, makeup, and how the definition of beauty differs across the border.
VICE: Why did you leave North Korea?
Yoon Mi-so: In 2006, the so-called fashion police or ‘gyuchaldae’ started cracking down on clothes they deemed inappropriate. One day, I was walking down the street and one of the regulators blocked me, all because I was wearing a yellow jacket with the English word “sports” on it. Apparently, it made me stand out. My hair is naturally dark brown, but the gyuchaldae also reprimanded me for that, thinking I got it colored. Once, I was summoned by a government youth organization for wearing tight pants. They tried to take me to the youth organization’s office again another time but I ran away.
I eventually came across an acquaintance who supplements her day job as a broker by helping people escape North Korea. It made me think: I need to leave here now. For me, the struggle that comes with not having the freedom to express myself was more painful than the difficulty of trying to make a living in a poor country.
I wanted to leave even more after my mom died. My parents divorced when I was 2 years old and my mother remarried when I was 10. My mom often argued with my step dad because he was unfaithful and materialistic. My mother died three years after they got married. I believe my step dad was involved in her death — all because of money — but it was deemed a suicide. I was only 13 years old then but I knew that it was unfair. I was very disappointed in my country, which pushed me to leave.
What does a beauty consultant do?
A person’s image is even more important these days; people care a lot about their appearances and expectations from others are also higher. As a beauty consultant, I coordinate my clients’ style, suggesting what colors and makeup suits them. Basically, my job is to manage a person’s physical appearance.
I would have never imagined having a job in the beauty industry in North Korea. Back then, I couldn’t even style myself the way I wanted. I hated it so much. I was already very interested in fashion and beauty at the time, but I never even thought of learning how to put on makeup. After moving to South Korea, I decided to go to college and majored in cosmetology in 2015. From there, I learned skin care, makeup, hairstyling, and nail art. It was a new world. Helping others find a style that suits them and watching them transform was so rewarding to me; that’s why I want to keep doing this.
“Helping others find a style that suits them and watching them transform was so rewarding to me.”
Are the beauty standards in North Korea and South Korea different?
The beauty standards in North Korea and South Korea are quite different. South Koreans like women who have a v-shaped face, with thin bodies and big eyes. I think North Koreans prefer women with round faces and eyes that are not too big. If you’re too skinny, people tell you things like “You look too weak,” “I don’t think you can work,” or “You look poor.” If men are skinny, people say “You look like you suffer from malnutrition” or “You don’t look strong enough to chop trees.” Unlike in South Korea, North Koreans prefer men who have darker skin, which is considered manly.
So was it uncommon for North Koreans to go on diets?
No, North Koreans go on diets too. I once took a laxative to lose weight because my sisters were doing it. You get sick all day and then lose weight. People wore underwear for body shaping too.
What was the most frustrating thing about living in North Korea?
It was the clothes. I would say the style in North Korea is like an old professor’s clothes in South Korea. They cover most of the body, are static, classic, and without color. I wanted more than that.
What were the fashion trends when you were in North Korea?
Actually, it was a little different from region to region. In North Korea, a pass is needed when you go to other regions. In my hometown Hyesan, the military uniform worn by the border guards was popular among men. When you remove epaulets from the uniform, they turn into everyday clothes. Though these uniforms are pretty standard, people are judged based on the material. You can tell when a person has an upper class background based on the cloth of their uniform; nylon was the best material and cotton was the second best.
I heard that Ri Sol Ju, Kim Jong Un’s wife, is a trendsetter in North Korea.
When I was in North Korea, I didn’t know about her. But if I were still there now, I would probably follow her style. Men wore Mao suits like the former leader Kim Jong Il did; older men liked that style. In 2010, right before I left North Korea, “flight jackets” were in vogue. They were usually green, blue, or red. They were expensive, but so popular that people bought them on credit. A jacket was around $2.65 to $3.5 at that time; one kilogram of rice that was good for one day was less than a dollar, while a pair of pants was $1.6 — the price of a jacket was double that.
Was there a fashion street in North Korea, like Sinsa-dong in Seoul?
There was no fancy fashion street in Hyesan, but there was a street where “young people who know how to wear clothes” gathered. It was actually a small secondhand market. Clothes from South Korea, China, and Japan were smuggled and sold on that street.
If the clothes were considered problematic, they couldn’t be sold in the market; openly selling them could get you in trouble. These included flared pants, body-hugging and skimpy clothes, and pieces of clothing with English words on them, and were usually sold secretly in people’s homes. When people find out that a certain house sells these clothes, they go there with other friends who are interested in fashion. If you want to wear what you shopped, you have to sneak around side streets where there are no regulators.
Why did they regulate people’s appearances and were there any other constraints?
They say that those who follow trends are “immersed in bourgeois thoughts” and ask “Why do you wear clothes with American words?” Every Saturday, students are told to think about what they’ve done wrong in the past week and point out what the misdeed was in public — they’re also made to criticize their classmates. It happens in workplaces too. It’s one of the ways the government brainwashes citizens.
I couldn’t wear colorful lipsticks. Not because they regulated it, but because I was too shy to use bright red ones. No one else wore lipsticks like that in North Korea; it’s just weird to stand out. Colorful makeup was also a very strange thing. If you put on colored makeup, people will say you’re insane. Or people might say, “Why do you paint your eyelids so blue? Did someone beat you up?”
How did you do your makeup in North Korea?
People used eyeliner and mascara but it was unimaginable and strange to add color to your face. In South Korea, there are so many options, like warm and cool tones, but in North Korea, it was always just about having white skin, which was considered pretty for women.
Bomhyanggi, which means “spring fragrance,” a brand produced by Sinuiju Cosmetics, was popular. My mother used Chinese cosmetics more often than North Korean ones. She also secretly used products from South Korea, which were usually sold by individuals and not in public markets. You only get those through connections and can’t tell anyone about it, in case authorities find out. I had to hide my South Korean cosmetics when my friends visited me. Some markets have them but they’re hidden under display stands and sold secretly. Ah, those were such frustrating times (laughs).
How accurate is the Korean drama Crash Landing on You in depicting life in North Korea?
The setting in the drama was too rural; it’s not actually that old-fashioned in North Korea. But the lifestyle is very similar. For example, it’s true that families with a military officer are privileged and that most people envy their wealth. A high-ranking soldier’s wife has real power in the town.
If you were to pick a color to describe North Korea, what would it be?
People usually think it’s red but I think it’s far from red. Red symbolizes passion and desire, but North Korea doesn’t let people do what they want to do. I think North Korea is more black. There was a tunnel I used to go to in my hometown and from there you’d see Changbai County in Jilin Province, China. It’s a neighborhood where many ethnic Koreans live, so you’d often hear Korean songs. I went to that tunnel when I got frustrated or missed my mom, thinking about how much I wanted to get out of my country. Maybe that’s why the color of North Korea reminds me of the dark color of the tunnel.
“Red symbolizes passion and desire, but North Korea doesn’t let people do what they want to do. I think North Korea is more black.”
What’s your plan for the future?
Up until last year, I never said that I was from North Korea. I hid it like a guilty person. When picking out my outfits, I was always conscious about how others would see me, worrying that I might look like a North Korean woman. But then I found out that a lot of people, including international and South Korean organizations, are interested in the stories of North Koreans and North Korean refugees. That’s when I realized I’ve been hiding and only focusing on myself. Now, I want to proudly say that I’m from North Korea and show that I’m living a fruitful life. I want to be an inspiration for North Korean refugees. Someday, I hope to help them as a beauty consultant too.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared on VICE Korea.