Asia - Issue 24 - Magazine | Monocle

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Style leaders: No. 19

Pantsuit of the people

North Korea [KIM JONG IL]

In a nation devoted to grandeur and spectacle, to parades of immaculate marching soldiers, and immense displays of synchronised gymnastics, North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il, is the worst-dressed man in the entire country. His generals sport smart olive uniforms with characteristically broad-topped caps. His civilian aides dress in elegantly old-fashioned dark suits. But whatever the occasion – the launching of a long-range rocket, the inauguration of the Supreme People’s Assembly – the man they call the “Dear Leader” insists on wearing what can best be described as a Stalinist pantsuit.

Perhaps it is the neatest way of concealing the German bullet-proof jacket, which he is said to wear wherever he goes. In the few photographs which show him wearing a conventional jacket and tie, he looks bizarrely ­unrecognisable. For Jong Il’s clothes are central to his conception of himself and the cult in which he is both god and high priest.

At its most basic it is the uniform of a worker, with something of the factory boiler suit, safari outfit and soldier’s uniform. From the accounts of defectors we know that Jong Il loves sushi and champagne and French cognac. But his clothes proclaim him to be a man of modesty and practicality, never happier than when he is travelling about the country, rolling up his polyester sleeves to offer “on the spot guidance” to grateful comrades.

It has enough of the Mao suit to make an ideological statement too (by contrast with the irredeemably capitalist associations of the western suit). Its cut and khaki-grey colour hark back to the 1970s – when Jong Il emerged as the successor to his father, North Korea’s founding “Great Leader”, Kim Il Sung.

But above all it is a symbol of Jong Il’s most outstanding quality: his stubborn, unyielding resistance to change. Twenty years after the Cold War ended, after its former allies Russia and China have rushed to embrace the outside world, North Korea remains a feudal despotism, a place of propaganda and repression, in which the government tests nuclear weapons while its people starve to death. In such a world of institutionalised backwardness, perhaps it is little wonder that the man at the top gives very little thought to refreshing his wardrobe.

  1. Hair
    The famous pompadoured bouffant of old has thinned out in the past few years, but Jong Il’s 67-year-old locks still stand proud, revealing the forehead, which has formulated such brilliant revolutionary thoughts over the years.
  2. Sunglasses
    Handy for shielding the glare as he stares out across the adoring multitude at mass rallies – and, in a country as style-starved as North Korea, shades are still cool. He often wears them indoors too.
  3. Pantsuit
    The trousers are long to conceal the lifts in the shoes. Note the elasticated waist band, which used to accommodate Jong Il’s famous pot belly, but has recently contracted around a much slimmer, gaunter frame since a serious stroke last summer.
  4. Shoes
    Cuban heels elevate him above his natural height of 5’ 3”. He is touchingly sensitive about his stature, once commenting to an actress friend, “I’m as small as a midget’s turd, aren’t I?”

Runway queens


China’s first female fighter pilots graduated this spring. The 16 women have become celebrities in China, which previously relegated its female air-force pilots to transport planes or charter flights for its leaders.

Female recruits worldwide:

UK: The RAF’s Jo Salter was the first to get her fighter pilot wings in 1994.
France: Its first female fighter pilot was Caroline Aigle (1999).
US: Women have been allowed in air force combat since the Gulf War.
Canada: Has permitted women in fighter jets since 1989.
Israel: Its first female fighter pilot was Roni Zuckerman (2001).
South Korea: Inducted its first female fighter pilots in 2002.
Pakistan: Graduated four women combat pilots in 2006.

Election watch


Date: 8 July 2009
Type: Presidential
Incumbent: President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, leader of the Democratic Party, expected to win a second five-year term.
Challenger: Ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

Main issues:
Economy, corruption.

What this means for the world:
Yudhoyono brought peace to Aceh and put a lid on Islamic terrorism after the Bali bombings. The West supports him.

Speech impediment


Some 196 languages are endangered in India. That’s more than any other country. Nine languages have disappeared since the 1950s.

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