Danbi Kim was just 14 years old when she started smuggling products into North Korea. Her father introduced her to the black market on a trip to trade scrap metal for rice at the Chinese border, and she knew she could hack it. Although the South Korean border is one of the most secure in the world, the northern, Chinese border, situated against her hometown of Hyesan, North Korea was porous, and lined with soldiers willing to take a bribe to allow a quick deal with a Chinese trader. It wasn’t difficult to pull off, but full of insurmountable risk: Encounter the wrong guard and you could end up in a prison camp without trial.
By the time she was 15, Danbi started smuggling on her own, but unlike her father, who traded brass and wood for oil and flour, Danbi knew she could make better money if she focused on the goods her peers wanted most: beauty products and trendy clothes. “South Korean makeup products are in high demand,” Danbi says. “Especially eyeliner and mask packs."
Danbi carved out a niche by smuggling in the makeup, skin care, and clothing seen in highly illegal, bootleg South Korean dramas — the type of shows passed around on illicit USB drives and watched late at night by the brave and curious. It’s through this practice that many North Korean women learn about the outside world for the very first time and become fascinated with foreign concepts like self expression and glamour.
“There are no exact names for the products in North Korea,” explains Danbi, who is now 27 and lives in South Korea. “Lipsticks are called ‘the thing to paint on lips,’ and blush is called ‘the thing to make cheeks red’.” But even without names, the demand was insatiable — Danbi would sometimes get thousands of orders per day from all over the country.
Business was booming, but what Danbi didn’t yet realize in those early days was that her daily shipments were fueling a larger resistance already starting to bubble up in illegal markets. Products and styles from South Korea, whether it was unlawful lipstick or banned apparel, began to signify a shared disobedience against the North Korean regime and an unspoken nod that the wearer had seen a glimpse of the outside world and was willing to get in trouble to show it.
But as the popularity of these illegal products grew, so did the regime’s awareness of this new generation of rebels. We travelled to South Korea to meet young defectors who risked their lives, often before they even turned 18, to bring change to their home country of North Korea. For them, and the women who benefited from the illegal goods, beauty is bigger than lipstick — it’s a way to incite a revolution in the longest running communist dynasty in the world.
When Beauty Is Banned
There’s no shortage of odd, perplexing, and deeply unsettling headlines about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, as it’s better known. The media focuses most on dictator Kim Jong-un and nuclear weapons, but beyond that is a world that remains incredibly mysterious. That’s because very few of the 25 million North Koreans living there are able to successfully defect — it’s estimated that every year fewer than 2,000 safely make it to the Republic of Korea, or South Korea, where 30,000 defectors currently live. And for those that can’t get out, life on the inside is a prison.
“It’s really hard to believe the extent of control that the government has over the people,” says Hannah Song, president and CEO of Liberty in North Korea, a nonprofit with offices in both Seoul and Los Angeles that aids defectors and compiles the research findings it learns from them. Kim Jong-un’s influence extends well beyond where a citizen works and what kind of information they’re allowed to learn, and into every last part of how they take care of themselves and their appearance.
While it might seem frivolous to worry about access to face wash or the right to trendy hairstyles in a country without freedom of speech, religion, or the press, it’s a control tactic that’s used as a visual confirmation of compliance by the regime. The DPRK relays its orders using state-issued propaganda like Choseon Ryusung, a magazine published for women by the North Korean government and obtained by Refinery29. It dictates that hair must be mid-length or shorter, clothing must be modest and loose-fitting, and any foreign trend or style is strictly forbidden.
“Attire must fit the socialistic way of living,” it reads. It states that North Korea “must strongly fight against those who choose to wear whatever they wish in the way they feel like.” This includes certain makeup and jewelry, nail polish, and hair dye of any kind.
The rules are enforced by obedient citizens tasked to patrol streets. A women’s union is said to monitor the capital of Pyongyang, while Kim Jong-un’s Socialist Youth League has authority over children, teens, and unmarried women in some parts of the country. Married women are said to be regulated by their husbands. Of course, this is likely just a snapshot of the entire country’s actual enforcement, which is said to be getting stricter over the past few years as Kim Jong-Un takes a harsher stance against all rule breakers — from those who change their appearance to defectors.
The Beauty Police
“There were rules in my society that banned us from growing and dying our hair a different color,” says Jessie Kim, 27, who defected to South Korea five years ago after running her own food smuggling business. She says there was a strong focus on cracking down on the latest trends in her hometown of Hyesan: Denim, jewelry, and hair dye, all of which were smuggled in by people like Danbi, were strictly off limits. “Whenever I wanted to buy beauty products, I had to do it secretly and illegally,” Jessie explains. Her father objected to her using smuggled facial toner and lotion as a teenager for fear she’d get caught, but she did it anyway. When she got a little older, she bought sheet masks and colored her hair dark brown. “I had to sneak and avoid the officers,” Jessie explains.
Hair seems to be a recurring pain point for the regime, so salons feature photos of approved haircuts on the walls to choose from, all of which range in length from the chin to collarbone. A surefire way to stay out of trouble is by picking something Kim Jong-un likes. “I didn’t want to cut my hair, but we didn’t have a choice,” says Hye-soo Kim, a defector who left Chongjin, North Korea at 19. She is now a student in the U.S. and works with the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington D.C.-based NGO that aids defectors. Hye-soo says she and her peers were forced to keep their hair between their ears and shoulders or face punishment.
Breaking any appearance rules might get you reprimanded on the street by a monitor. Hye-soo says that could include having your ponytail cut off or being beaten in front of passersby for wearing pants that were too tight before having them cut off and destroyed. But it’s not just street monitors she had to avoid; she was also subjected to weekly self-criticism sessions. The infamous practice involves meetings with authority members to confess your shortcomings. A long haircut would have never gotten past the school teacher she was assigned to confess to — it would have just made things worse. “If you broke the rules, you’d have to go more often,” Hye-soo says.
For Danbi, the temptation was too much. “I thought I looked very beautiful when I got clothes from China and tried them on,” she says. “I didn’t care about the inspection much and started to pamper myself by getting a hair-straightening perm, wearing fancy clothes, skinny jeans, and high heels.” This got her into trouble regularly. “I was humiliated in public for wearing something that was not allowed,” she says.
This particular case was triggered by a pair of highly-illegal flare jeans. Danbi was stopped by a monitor while walking down the street and scolded before the monitor cut her pants up the leg until they were rendered unwearable. She was then forced to stand on the street wearing her cut jeans with her head lowered in shame for six hours before being told to go home to write a statement of repentance promising she wouldn’t break the rules again.
But the risks associated with smuggling in items were far more serious than just buying, wearing, or using them. “I got caught many times when I was smuggling,” Danbi says. She could typically bribe her way out of individual arrests, but when the regime targeted her whole operation in a sting, things got much worse. “Thirty of us, including myself, my friend, and family, got arrested at dawn,” she says. At this point, she was 17 and she and her older brother Namhoon* were working together. After days of interrogations and torture, her family and friends were released — everyone except Danbi, Namhoon, and their three associates. They were being investigated for smuggling, but because her brother worked as a police officer, he was also accused of being a spy, an umbrella term for someone going against the regime.
After weeks of being forced to sit cross-legged on the floor in a detention center, eating only a few kernels of corn per day and being forbidden from lying down or sleeping, they were moved to a second location. Each time they were moved, the torture got worse. “I made up my mind not to give them the answers they wanted because I thought I was going to die anyway,” Danbi says. Eventually she and Namhoon were transported to an empty police warehouse, then shuttled to the one place you really don’t want to end up: a prison camp.
North Korea’s prison camps are so secretive that few photos of them even exist. The U.N. relies on simple drawings from survivors and satellite footage, and the accounts from those who escaped are graphic: starvation, rape, and torture are just the beginning.
“The only reason I was able to get through the situation was because of my brother,” Danbi says. She and her brother Namhoon were held in isolation as the investigation continued. “There was a sewage pipe underneath the cells and we were able to hear each other, so we tapped on the pipe and talked to each other,” she says. “My brother told me, ‘I’m going to confess that I did everything, so that you survive and take care of the family.'” Danbi was released, but she hasn’t heard from her brother since and doesn’t know whether he is dead or alive. Danbi’s eyes fill with tears when she talks about her brother, but she chooses to believe he is still fighting for his life.
It’s estimated that 200,000 North Koreans are in prison camps today — and 400,000 have died in camps already — including entire families and children. Because of this, it's more common for citizens to express their defiance through low-level acts, like dying their hair or wearing banned clothes, versus something that might be common in other countries, like protesting in public or speaking out on social media. But these low-level acts would be impossible to pull off without smugglers like Danbi taking larger risks.
The Beautician: An Enemy Of The State
A desire for change, combined with access to smuggled products that allow for individual expression, has created the perfect storm of shared disobedience. “Whenever the government banned something, I always did it more,” Jessie says. “If we are told not to dye our hair, we go dye our hair. If we are told not to wear earrings, we want to wear earrings more. I believe these were [the] psychological effects of being banned from doing these things.”
Illegal goods act as tools for rebellion, but it doesn’t end there. “Jobs are created by those beauty products,” Danbi explains. “There are self-taught people who make their living by doing makeup. They purchase beauty products and make money by providing their service for weddings, first meetings between the bride and groom's family, and 60th birthday parties.” Danbi says that saving up for a flatiron, makeup, or nail supplies has opened a door for microeconomics among women who otherwise would have no income stream.
“It was an opportunity for them to find their talent,” Danbi says, noting that many of these jobs didn’t even have a name before the influx of black market goods became available. “Thanks to smugglers bringing in those products, North Korea was modernized.”
But with heavy policing and extreme punishment, where do these beauty exchanges actually happen? Song says the marketplaces where you’d find these goods, called Jangmadangs, are “camouflage capitalism” at work, something Liberty in North Korea has been tracking. Sellers make large orders from women like Danbi and sell them for slightly more to their customers to make a profit. Of course, it’s often too risky to place illegal goods out in the open in these swap meet-like shopping areas — top shelves are reserved for produce and household goods — so disseminating illegal goods takes clever strategies.
Asking for “something delicious” or for products from “the town down there” is code for illegal USB drives loaded with South Korean dramas and beauty products, respectively. Some women will even call them out using a South Korean accent, a subtle code that alerts customers to smuggled goods. “Women who had watched South Korean films would recognize that and they would know right away that's where they could get products from South Korea,” Song says.
Danbi smuggled, but she also shopped, too, so she’d give a special gesture to show what she wanted. “The sales ladies at Jangmadang would understand what I was trying to say and guide me to their home,” she says. “When I would enter the house, there would be luxury goods, cosmetics, and bags.”
Danbi had her own strategy in her early days. Once, when a new shipment of contraband clothing arrived, she asked her tallest friends to wear the items through town to drum up excitement for the latest style — North Korea’s grassroots answer to the fashion show. “People asked my friends where they bought the clothes from and my friends gave them my address, then everyone gathered at my house,” she says. “I sold a massive amount of clothes in three days by doing fashion shows with my friends.”
A Symbol Of Freedom
Few would assume that fashion or beauty can liberate North Korea, but Jessie points out how it acts like a gateway drug by exposing young people to messages of expression and freedom — and that’s invaluable. “The more people gain beauty information, the more people are exposed to foreign information,” she says. “It can be a good chance for people to realize that the government is teaching the wrong information.”
It worked for Noel Kim, 26. As a teen growing up in the northern border town of Onsong, coloring her hair represented her first small act of rebellion, even if no one knew it. Her hair is naturally black, and when she finally got the courage to try smuggled hair dye she picked… black. For her, getting noticed wasn’t the point, she just wanted to tell her peers she’d done it. “It’s just to show off that you’ve dyed your hair,” she says.
Once Noel saw other people in her community of Onsong taking beauty and style risks, it helped her to take the next step. “I started to see people wearing jeans and dying their hair,” she says. “It started from one or two people, but it became bigger and bigger and the [regime] couldn't control it anymore.”
Shared disobedience could make for real change in North Korea: One hope is that if everyone breaks the rules little by little, and in unison, the regime will be forced to loosen its grasp. But even as millennials put pressure on the regime, and fight for the country to open its borders, chances are good that anything from South Korea will still be banned from entering.
K-Beauty vs NK-Beauty
According to Dr. Sung-wook Nam, chair of the department of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul, beauty products are just the latest focus in a chess match between the two Koreas. “South Korean K-beauty is a threat to the Kim Jong-un regime and the control of the system,” he says. “It’s difficult for the North Korean regime to completely prevent South Korean K-Beauty because it's a very addictive atmosphere.”
It turns out, the allure of K-beauty was a strategic move planned by South Korea for years. It’s the next category in the government’s global exportation of Korean culture known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. In short, it’s soft power at its most sophisticated. “If the government says that they have a specific interest in an industry, they will not only direct, but they will also facilitate in terms of providing incentives or tax breaks, especially for the export of these products,” explains Dr. Hannah Jun, assistant professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
The first ripple was K-dramas and films (Strong Girl Bong-soon and Oh My Ghost are smash hits on Netflix), then came K-pop (BTS and BlackPink have exploded in popularity in the U.S.), and finally, K-beauty hit the United States around 2011 when the first BB cream from Dr. Jart launched at Sephora. It’s all one big move for international cultural diplomacy and a strong national economy to make up for a lack of natural resources on the tiny peninsula.
One success story is the government’s investment in multimillion-dollar K-beauty brand Dr. Jart, a line that is currently sold in over 2,400 Sephora stores globally. Last year, the company won the Wellchamp, an innovation award from the South Korean government, and used the money to host pop-up stores in the U.S. and China, says Dennis Yang, senior sales and strategy manager for the brand.
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes,” Dr. Jun says of South Korea’s K-beauty strategy. She even hypothesizes that Kim Jong-un’s latest venture might be a direct reaction to K-beauty. Between 2017 and 2018, he toured North Korean luxury beauty factories to drum up excitement for the country’s cosmetic innovations. “They saw the success of South Korean firms and cosmetics and K-Beauty, not just domestically, but across the world,” she says. “Relatively speaking, there's a lower entry barrier to get involved in cosmetics and so I think they felt that they might have a chance.”
Dr. Nam has what appears to be the largest collection of North Korean products in his office, including 65 whitening creams, face washes, essences, and more, all smuggled in by one of his Chinese students for his latest book that he co-authored, North Korean Women and Cosmetics. It’s only available in Korean now, but might be translated into English soon. He says that while the majority of North Korean women cannot afford these products — they’re reserved for the high class women of the capital — the regime does distribute beauty rations to loyal citizens on occasion, albeit simpler formulas like basic soap and lotion.
“North Korean beauty is usually distributed by some event, [like] Kim Jong-un or his father’s birthday, and Founder's Day [to show his] generosity,” Dr. Nam says. He adds that Kim Jong-un’s goal is to export the products worldwide, but chances are that won’t happen, at least not until sanctions are lifted and quality increases. The products themselves have issues: Most we tried were runny or separated, smelled strongly of food-grade ginseng, and were packed into bottles that didn’t dispense properly.
But no matter how sophisticated North Korea’s state-created luxury beauty industry becomes, there’s no chance the regime will be able to cut K-beauty off at the pass. And with the Korean Wave only getting stronger, it will likely permeate North Korea in the same way the first three waves did, bringing more information to a nation hungry for the truth about the outside world and their place in it. Until then, the young female smugglers of North Korea will continue to bring in the goods that young people want.
“These small changes that are happening are being driven by North Korean people,” Song says. “This is where there's hope. We look at them as some of the most effective agents of change.”
*Names have been changed.