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When Kim Jong Un speaks to the media, or watches a missile launch, or checks out the newest gadgets created by his populace, you can probably picture what he’s wearing. The long black jacket with pinstripes (alternate colors include gray and Army green), big buttons down the front, a short, stiff collar, matching pants.
You’ve seen it before, in grainy footage on CNN. I never paid much attention to it; to me, it’s always looked like it was from another era, one that exists simultaneously but independently from our own. But recently, those worlds collided: For the first time, Kim met with Moon Jae-in, the South Korean leader.
The two leaders seemed to get along swimmingly, but what they wore seemed to embody the spirit of their respective countries: Moon, in a perfectly tailored gray suit and purple tie, hails from one of the most developed (and appearance-conscious) nations on earth; Kim’s dark pinstripes made him look outdated and backward. And at a moment when every little detail could have implications for the future of those nations and more, a choice like that speaks volumes.
That outfit that Kim wears is called a Mao suit. Though legend has it that Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, created the suit in the early 1900s, Mao Zedong popularized it when he first rose to power in 1949, linking it irrevocably to communism. Throughout the notorious Cultural Revolution, the Mao suit was “one of the only acceptable things to wear,” according to the BBC; depending on your income level, its fabric ranged from uncomfortable polyester to itchy wool.
Today, the Mao suit is not typical attire for the average person, or even for your typical North Korean. It’s pretty much only worn these days by leaders. Its style and the limited palette in which the Mao suit is worn (choices include gray, lighter gray, military green, and black) clearly echo the ties to the military that put leaders in power.
Even now, Kim Jong Un isn’t the only communist leader to wear the Mao suit — Chinese President Xi Jinping does on formal occasions (other communist leaders throughout history, including Josef Stalin, have done so too, while others such as Fidel Castro have opted for a more overtly military style). But it takes on a special significance with Kim.
“The black [outfit] is a direct reference to Kim’s grandfather’s legacy, a way to legitimize his rule,” says Suk-Young Kim, a professor of Korean culture at UCLA. You see, she says, Kim’s path to power wasn’t a smooth one — his father died suddenly, and he had two older brothers who, in the public’s opinion, might have been more qualified to lead the nation.
“As a newcomer to this game of thrones, Kim Jong Un had to establish himself as a legitimate leader. And the best way to do that was to link his image directly to that of his grandfather,” Kim says.
Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, who founded the nation of North Korea, was much beloved by his people. His reign is often considered to be the country’s golden age.
Today, citizens’ lives look a whole lot different. With the country devastated by years of famine and cut off from the rest of the world, North Koreans now contend with limited medical care and an authoritarian state that now perpetrates “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights,” as a 2014 report from the United Nations found.
Kim Jong Un’s devotion to this image even goes as far as his diet, some suspect. “Some outside observers speculate that to look more like his grandfather, Kim Jong Un went on diet to be more stout, to remind people of his grandfather’s later years,” Suk-Young Kim says.
Like Hillary Clinton with her pantsuits or Mark Zuckerberg and his hoodie, that pinstriped Mao suit was Kim Il Sung’s signature look. And Kim Jong Un has shrewdly embraced it for political gain.
Kim Jong Un’s clothes, however, don’t seem to be the most obvious place for North Korea experts to look for clues; at least four of them responded to my queries about what his clothes mean with some version of, “That’s a good question; I’m not sure.”
But it’s notable that in the past, Kim Jong Un hasn’t shied away from wearing Western-style suits, even when making televised announcements. When he’s worn these suits, looking like “a banker, wearing Armani … there has been a lot of speculation that he is trying to make North Korea look more modern and connected,” Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, told the New York Times.
But that’s not the look Kim went for on his recent goodwill tour. His image becomes the national image, and it means he has to strike a delicate balance. “He wanted to stay [with a] distinctive North Korean identity in the eyes of a world audience, and in the eyes of North Koreans,” Suk-Young Kim says. It’s important for Kim Jong Un to look distinctive and not blend in with the sea of well-tailored Western suits with bold ties. “He was making it clear that North Korea has its own distinctive identity, that it won’t be absorbed by massive [outside] influence,” she adds.
North Korea is at a crossroads, and its population is similarly divided. “People want to embrace change because life is so unbearable for so many people. There have been so many years of sanctions and of economic hardship, and people want change. But they are also divided in terms of loyalty to [Kim Jong Un’s] regime, and what North Korea should be,” Kim says. By wearing the Mao suit, Kim Jong Un somehow embodies both: “We want to embrace corporation with the West, to receive financial assistance and lift sanctions. But not going to let go of who we are.”
Now that President Trump has canceled his planned summit with Kim, the North Korean leader will have to wait for another opportunity to project this dual image: polished diplomat, defender of the besieged. But if and when it happens in the future, which Kim seems to want, it’s a safe bet that he will wear the Mao suit again. “I’m 99 percent sure he’ll wear it,” Suk-Young Kim says.