Kim Jong Il, 'fashion icon'

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A North Korean website says the ?Dear Leader? began a global fashion trend with his zippered jumpsuits. Many North Koreans apparently believe it. North Korea watcher and author Barbara Demick explains how authorities there have mastered the art of propaganda.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. North Korea is run by a secretive communist regime. So you never know if the stories that come out of there are quite as they appear. But this story out of North Korea caught our attention recently. It described leader Kim Jong Il as a global fashion icon thanks to his trademark zip up suit. The story came out of one of Kim's state run websites. It even quoted an unidentified French fashion expert. Barbara Demick covers North Korea as Beijing Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. Barbara, assess for us Kim Jong Il's fashion sense. Have you seen his style in other parts of the world?

BARBARA DEMICK: I cannot say I've seen his style in other parts of the world and I haven't even seen his style in North Korea. I don't think North Koreans favor wearing these drab gray suits, not that they have such fantastic clothes. But it's not like everybody is walking around like that. People tend to wear dark trousers, button down shirts, sweaters, or more typical Joe.

WERMAN: And if they're five foot three inches like Kim Jong Il is they probably don't go out and splurge on a pair of elevator shoes.

DEMICK: They probably don't. They probably wear their height in pride, no matter what it is.

WERMAN: Now the story that Kim Jong Il is a fashion icon began perhaps not surprisingly at this North Korean government website called urimin zokiri. It doesn't appear to be your typical single party government mouth piece. It focuses less on official policy and more on kind of culture, soft policy, is that right? Do you know what this website is?

DEMICK: It's a fairly new website and I think it's almost like a fan club for Kim Jong Il and for the regime. But they quote bits and pieces from the news service. This particular item that said Kim Jong Il's trademark suit is now in fashion worldwide thanks to his greatness. That came from Rodov Shinman which is the workers' daily and that's the main North Korean paper.

WERMAN: This is also the same website that states incontrovertibly that Kim Jong Il was born in a log cabin on a countryside mountain and that the event was marked by a double rainbow and bright star in the sky. Now having followed North Korean citizens over a 15 year period, and you kind of talk about this in your book, "Nothing to Envy, Ordinary Lies in North Korea"., have you found that North Koreans really buy into the propaganda put forth by the government there?

DEMICK: Oh yes. Oh yes they do believe that and this is all they know. Children are taught from the time they go to school all these legends they have in the schools, Kim Jong Il rooms, little museums, they're like shrines and they show the log cabin on Mount Pekdu and yes, they absolutely believe all that about the leadership.

WERMAN: And with stories like the one about Kim Jong Il's zip up suit, how would North Koreans view that kind of story? Would they chuckle or is it like, him he is an international fashion icon.

DEMICK: Oh no, they would not chuckle. They don't, in fact people who have made jokes saying gee wouldn't it be great if our leader were a little bit taller? They can get taken away up to the gulag for that. So I think they would, if they read that they would just nod and say good for him.

WERMAN: So I'm just kind of curious what a notice in this Urimin Zokiri on Kim Jong Il being a fashion icon actually suggests about what's going on in North Korea. What is the dynamic there between propaganda, both soft and hard propaganda, and current events, whether it's nuclear proliferation or North Koreans facing starvation.

DEMICK: Well to us, a lot of this about North Korea is a joke. You know the bouffant hair, the sunglasses, the suit, this is just a great joke, but the North Koreans take Kim Jong Il very seriously and all their propaganda is designed to make it look like the rest of the world takes him seriously too. North Koreans can't get any kind of external media there. They're televisions are fixed to a single station. Their radios are fixed to a single station. They have no internet, and so this is the only voice that they know, the propaganda. And it's so deeply inculcated in them; even North Koreans when they come out of North Korea can't really say bad things about Kim Il Sun and Kim Jong Il because they are taught as little children if you say something bad about Kim Jong Il, you're a bad person.

WERMAN: Barbara what's your sense of the propaganda barometer in North Korea right now? Is North Korean facing high pressure or low pressure?

DEMICK: High pressure. Very, very high pressure because in the past North Koreans were always taught they have nothing to envy in the world, that's the title of my book, but they are the greatest country, everybody else is suffering, everybody else is hungry and now little bits of information are creeping through. They get an occasional DVD smuggled across the border, an occasional magazine, and they know now, they know that the South Koreans and the Americans and the Chinese eat much better. So now the propaganda is telling them well, okay those guys might be richer, but they're corrupt and they are the running dogs of the American Imperialists and all this kind of stuff and as North Korea becomes poorer and poorer and China becomes richer, they need more propaganda to convince people that they're better off being in North Korea. That's a really difficult thing to do.

WERMAN: So it has gone from nothing to envy in the world to something to envy in the world.

DEMICK: But we're still better, we're still better. We're still better than them.

WERMAN: I understand a lot of North Koreans are hungry again right now. I mean how long can the government keep saying we're still better? It's going to be getting better?

DEMICK: It's really tough. They did a revaluation of their currency in late November/early December. Basically invalidated all the old currency and issued new. Closed down the markets and it caused a lot of chaos in the economy and this one is really hard to blame on anybody else. This was pretty clearly their fault, so we're all wondering how much longer they can get away with it.

WERMAN: Los Angeles Times Beijing Bureau Chief, Barbara Demick speaking to us about North Korea and its propaganda, good to speak with you Barbara, thanks a lot.

DEMICK: Okay, thanks so much.