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Dispatches: Fashion Show Elle Magazine Didn’t Want You to See
November 20, 2013

What were they thinking? 

Someone, somewhere in the depths of luxury magazine Elle thought it was a good idea to feature “North Korea chic” in September’s edition of the magazine (the page was subsequently replaced). 

“Some iteration of the military trend stomps the runways every few seasons,” the article purred. “This time, it's edgier, even dangerous, with sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring.” Dangerous indeed for those actually in North Korea and subject to being executed for simply watching a foreign video. Or for those beaten to death. 

It didn't take long for the world to render its judgement – outrage on social media condemned Elle for its breathtaking ignorance and insensitivity.

The magazine's mea culpa quickly followed: We regret the reference to North Korea in our post on the season’s military trend, and have removed the image. We apologize to those we offended. It wrote on its website.

It’s worth pausing to consider where the outrage over “North Korea Chic” stems from.

Human rights activists become used to hearing distressing stories of cruelty and brutality against the powerless and the innocent. It is the price we pay for helping to bear witness and demand justice.

But even for the more hardened amongst us, North Korea, provides some of the worst and most gut-wrenching stories imaginable: torture, starvation of children, beatings, random killings, forced labor in brutal camps.

Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge, who heads a UN panel into the crimes of North Korea, admitted that he had been reduced to tears by some of the testimonies he had heard.

Ironically, Elle is a magazine that seeks to contribute to the debate about “rebranding feminism”.  In a recent interview, Elle’s UK editor declared: “We have always been forthright, smart, brave, and intelligent.”  

In October, my colleague, John Sifton, attended one of the sessions of the UN inquiry on North Korea. He tweeted: “North Korea escapee says mother gave her the starving baby while she went out to find food somewhere. The baby died in her arms.” And then “witness is now crying”.

Yes, Elle has removed the North Korea page but one can’t help wonder why Elle thought it “forthright, smart, brave, intelligent” to trivialize the totalitarian regime of North Korea in the first place. Rather than just apologize for offending, why not use its powerful media platform to call out North Korea for its notable cruelty, not its style.