Kim Jong Un has grooming and parenting advice for North Korean women

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Kim Jong Un didn’t attend the recent Seventh Congress of the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea, according to state media. But as the supreme leader’s words filled the auditorium on Sunday, hundreds of North Korean women dutifully took notes anyway.

Women should wear traditional clothing that helps make “all the aspects of life brim over with our flavor, taste and national emotions,” Kim commanded in a letter read by a top North Korean official. And so they did: Row upon row of women wore brightly colored dresses and blue face masks.

They should sing patriotic songs at construction sites and write encouraging letters to male soldiers, Kim said. And so they would, in a totalitarian state that left them little choice.

Above all, Kim warned women to protect their children from “alien ideology, culture and lifestyles.”

Things as seemingly minor as unusual clothing and speaking styles were, in fact, a “malignant tumor that threatens the life and future of our descendants,” he said, according to NK News, an outlet based in Seoul that focuses on North Korea.

Kim’s comments were the latest in a string of broadsides from Pyongyang against foreign influence, which the Hermit Kingdom sees as a serious threat. For years, flash drives full of Hollywood blockbusters and K-pop have flowed into North Korea via balloons, human smugglers and even helicopter drones.

North Korea recently tripled the maximum penalty for possessing such contraband to 15 years of hard labor, and it has successfully pressed South Korea to ban sending flash drives, leaflets or money across the border.

But after closing its border completely last year to keep the coronavirus at bay, the country is now facing food shortages so dire that Kim publicly admitted last week the situation is “tense.”

With internal issues mounting, it’s no surprise that Kim is again warning of foreign influence, said North Korea specialist Rüdiger Frank.

“North Korea is in the middle of an economic crisis, and Kim Jong Un’s strategy to deal with it is inward-orientation and strengthening the role of the state,” Frank, a professor at the University of Vienna, wrote in an email. “A crackdown on the ideological front is a logical consequence.”

Frank said he had seen the power of pop culture during his teenage years in East Germany in the 1980s. So, too, had Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, who warned a quarter-century ago of pop culture’s role in the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

His son appears to have learned the same lesson, Frank said.

“Now, new technologies such as digital media, mobile devices, etc. are making it increasingly difficult to isolate the population from South Korean culture,” he wrote. “Kim Jong Un’s remarks are a confirmation that North Korea’s youth is under substantial influence by this kind of foreign culture.”

Kim has sometimes sought to portray himself as a cultural reformer and has made some symbolic gestures on gender issues. The authoritarian leader sent his sister to the 2018 Winter Olympics, a trip that made Kim Yo Jong the first in the Kim family to visit South Korea since 1950, and earned her comparisons to Ivanka Trump.

His wife, Ri Sol Ju, appears regularly in public, unlike her predecessors, and even walks arm in arm with her husband⁠ — “a shocking public display of affection and social equality,” according to Anna Fifield, former Korea correspondent for The Washington Post.

“In a country where even the wives of top cadres wore the shapeless socialist outfits that made everyone equally drab, Ri cut a strikingly modern figure,” Fifield wrote in her book on Kim.

North Korea passed a gender equality law as early as 1946, and its centralized, communist-run economy relies heavily on female workers. But it remains a “de facto still highly patriarchic society,” Frank said. Sexual violence against women, which often goes unpunished, has been widely documented.

Kim’s letter underlines something that has become increasingly clear in his recent speeches, according to Frank.

“When you face a crisis, you can retreat or move forward,” he said. “Kim Jong Un’s reaction, including the hyper-conservative attempt to regulate the way teenagers look and speak, shows that the North Korean leader is not a reformer.”

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