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Welcome to North Korea: The World’s Safest Fashion Hotspot

As Russia seeks a bigger role in the Korean standoff, there is a new narrative for the isolated dictatorship: a trendsetting tourism destination, safe under a nuclear umbrella

Dispatch

Moscow, Russia

Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, is becoming a global fashion hotspot. If you did a double-take on that sentence, then you’re behind the times - according to Russia’s most-watched TV station.

While much of the world’s media has been obsessing over North Korea’s autocratic leader and his nuclear arsenal, the country itself has been enjoying a “fashion boom,” enthused one recent report on Channel One, putting Pyongyang “on a par with Milan or Paris.”

The Kremlin-controlled channel’s fashion scoop was just one of a series of upbeat pieces about North Korea that have been appearing in the Russian media this year - coinciding with a noticeable uptick in Moscow’s interest in the Korean peninsula’s hair-trigger standoff.

Traditionally, this has been a proxy battleground for the US and China - the key allies respectively of the two neighbors. But as in the Middle East, President Vladimir Putin is asserting a Russian role as well. “It’s a chance for Moscow to become an intermediary,” says Kommersant columnist Maxim Yusin, “to strengthen its position in the region and the world.”

Russian TV redressing North Korea’s image

EAT GRASS

Even though the Russian foreign ministry condemned Kim Jong-un’s test of a suspected hydrogen bomb earlier this month, it was quickly followed up by soothing words from Putin himself, saying the North Koreans would rather “eat grass than give up their nuclear weapons.”

Clearly aiming at Washington, the Russian president said “ramping up military hysteria” would only lead to “planetary catastrophe.”

Though Russia has been flexing its military muscle in the region too, alongside its media offensive. It dispatched a sortie of nuclear-capable bombers and fighter jets sent along the peninsular last month, just as South Korea and the US were carrying out joint military exercises.

North Korea was only too happy to see the Russian warplanes. It has been trying to boost ties for some time, concerned about becoming too dependent on its long-time ally China. “They don’t have this fear about Russia,” says Vasily Kashin, senior fellow at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Pyongyang’s diplomats in Moscow had already been running their own charm offensive, encouraging Russians to come and visit - even highlighting their nuclear arsenal as protection. North Korea is “one of the safest countries in the world...for law-abiding tourists,” said Kim Sen Khun, an embassy official, as he announced a new North Korea tourism agency in Russia.

Nuclear weapons, he added, “fully guarantee safety and peace on the Korean peninsula.”

PYONGYANG - CITY OF A THOUSAND RESTAURANTS

The new tourism agency was announced just as Channel One was airing its reports from Pyongyang, with its reporter being given unusually good access to North Korean people.

She made the most of her opportunity, getting herself filmed dancing in the street and trying on North Korean clothes as she redressed the country’s image.

Implicitly challenging persistent reports of North Koreans going hungry, the reporter called Pyongyang “a city of a thousand restaurants,” with ordinary Koreans regularly eating up to 15 courses in one meal.

Fashion capital: Pyongyang styles on show

PUTIN’S GAMBLE

Channel One did not respond to requests for comment on the timing of the series and what role the North Korean authorities had played in putting it together.

But there seems to be a clear pattern. Earlier this year, the Siberian and Far Eastern regional editions of the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda carried a series of articles praising Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s first leader, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather. Russia’s short border with North Korea is in Siberia, near Vladivostok. The paper’s editor-in-chief, Vladimir Sungorkin, admitted the pieces were what he called “native advertising,” paid for by a North Korean organization, but he refused to give its name.

Similar articles have appeared in several newspapers in the southern Krasnodar region too.

Some remain skeptical though over how much leverage this new strategy will really give the Kremlin. North Korea’s real goal is still “to negotiate directly with the US,” says analyst Vasily Kashin of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies. “It isn’t really interested in intermediaries.”

Yet just like in the Middle East, President Putin seems to be taking another of his foreign policy bets. The payout may not be clear, or even guaranteed, but he thinks it is worth the gamble.