Women’s Agency through Fashion in North Korea’s Transition
North Korean women’s fashion has changed in the context of women’s relatively recently assumed role as critical actors in North Korea’s market-dependent economy. Through examination of changes in women’s fashion we learn more about how the way women choose to dress can become an agentic and empowering process. The article argues that the case of North Korean women and their dress practice can inform our understanding of how women, even in the most oppressive of circumstances, develop tactics to manipulate the systems and social order that seek to control them. North Korean women have enacted upon their agency deliberately, getting away with what they can while simultaneously skilfully avoiding the dire consequences of being identified as actors who dare to disrupt the status quo. This type of agency is not always understood or appreciated by Western liberal frames and sensibilities of agency that centralise notions of individualism and freedom. This nuanced appreciation of women’s agency has the potential to expand the “rights, choices and autonomy” Western discourse of women’s agency in ways that are inclusive of women who live, and sometimes manage to thrive, in the face of extreme oppression. This paper is informed by the authors’ field notes from trips to North Korea and by 45 in-depth interviews with North Korean refugees, regular visitors to North Korea and NGO workers.
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