The Real Reason North Korea Just Banned Leather Coats

Dictators have some strange power moves. Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Muammar Gaddafi, Pol Pot, Francisco Franco — they all had them. In 2000, according to the BBC, Iraq's Saddam Hussein commissioned a calligrapher to produce a Quran written with 50 pints of his own blood — despite the fact that Islam explicitly forbids it. Adolf Hitler would refuse to take off his coat in public, per Military History, no matter how hot of a day it was, nor how informal the situation. And the former supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, reportedly had a team of women who made sure that all of the grains of rice served to him were identical in size, color, and shape, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2004.

Who knows why authoritarians choose to display their strength the way they do? Maybe they want to exercise their power by making their underlings and citizens perform absurd tasks. Perhaps they think they can maintain their power by simply dressing like a powerful figure. Or, maybe it's all just a matter of a weird quirk in their dictator brains. Whatever the case may be, one thing is for sure: dictators will do nearly anything — no matter how petty — to sideline those who seek to undermine their power.

North Korea banned leather coats to preserve Kim Jong-un's style

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un certainly has his signature style. From his Mao-style suit to his trademark high-cut hairstyle parted down the middle to his horn-rimmed glasses, Kim has a look. Some of his style choices — including possibly putting lifts in his shoes to make the 5'7" Kim appear taller, according to GQ — are designed to exude power. But things went too far for Kim Jong-un when North Koreans began to copy a signature piece of his personal style: leather coats. It has reportedly irritated the leader so much that North Korea has banned leather trench coats to keep people from imitating Kim Jong-un's fashion sense, according to Newsweek.

The country has put in place a blanket ban on young men wearing leather trench coats, with police patroling the streets to confiscate the jackets from citizens and sellers who have stocked the coats, according to a report from Radio Free Asia. "When these leather coats became popular, the law enforcement authorities went after the companies that made the coats that look too much like the Highest Dignity's," one source told Radio Free Asia. Kim made the leather coat popular in North Korea in 2019 when he appeared in public and on state television frequently wearing the duster.

Fake leather jackets were just too much of a challenge to Kim Jong-un's power

During a North Korean military parade in January 2021, all high-ranking officials were seen wearing the leather jackets, which drew even more attention to the item. The leather coats were initially worn by political elites and by the very wealthy North Koreans who could afford the expensive item, which could cost about 20 times the monthly average North Korean salary, per Newsweek. However, fake leather replicas of Kim Jong-un's coat soon came on the market for less than half the cost, which frustrated the country's supreme leader.

All of it has sent literal fashion police hunting for real and fake leather jackets, alike. For their part, citizens have complained, saying it is not fair for the police to confiscate a jacket they paid for. "The police respond to the complaints, saying that wearing clothes designed to look like the Highest Dignity's is an 'impure trend to challenge the authority of the Highest Dignity,'" another North Korean source told Radio Free Asia. "They instructed the public not to wear leather coats because it is part of the party's directive to decide who can wear them." Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un's sister, has also been seen wearing a similar leather jacket, according to Radio Free Asia, with one source noting: "So now the leather coat has become a symbol for powerful women too."