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North Korean defector Kang Ji-hyun co-founded social impact fashion brand ISTORY with Marie Boes. Photo: courtesy of ISTORY

North Korean defector and fashion designer shares escapee stories through her colourful creations

  • Kang Ji-hyun fled North Korea in 2009 and ended up in South Korea, where she studied clothing and textiles
  • She co-founded social impact fashion brand ISTORY to share other defectors’ tales through decorative elbow patches

By Park Han-sol

For North Korean-born Kang Ji-hyun, her chance sighting of a foreign tourist at Paektu Mountain at the age of 15 changed her life.

What started out as a routine family trip to the mountain was the first time she saw an actual foreigner in the flesh. What caught her eyes wasn't his height or his unkempt beard – but his ripped jeans.

He must be a beggar, she immediately thought to herself, asking her father why in the world a homeless person would be walking around Paektu. Her father, after some thought, told her that the tourist's clothing must be a sign not of his status but rather his choice of style.

ISTORY’s long-sleeved T-shirts with their signature elbow patches. Photo: courtesy of ISTORY

The fact that the ripped outfit, an immediate indication of homelessness in her country, could be a fashion item was a revelation for Kang.

But in North Korea, social and academic barriers as well as strong opposition from her parents prevented her from studying and charting a path towards fashion design. As her passion continued to grow, her eyes eventually turned to the outside world.

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“I consumed a wide range of content from films, dramas and magazines from South Korea and the US, where diversely styled clothing made regular appearances,” the 31-year-old designer said in an interview. “These worlds, once I started being aware of their existence, fascinated me more and more. And I began to think that what I can't study and achieve in my home country would be a possibility beyond its borders.”

Kang defected to China in 2009 and came to South Korea three years later. Without much hesitation, she majored in clothing and textiles at Hanyang University. Last year, she enrolled in the entrepreneurship boot camp Asan Sanghoe, launched by the Asan Nanum Foundation to help North Koreans resettle, as well as helping them alongside young South Koreans and foreigners find a way into the business world. It was there that she met Marie Boes from Belgium. And together, they launched their social impact fashion brand ISTORY.

ISTORY aims to tell the real stories of North Korean defectors through fashion. Based on the interviews she conducts with each North Korean refugee, Kang sketches a pattern, a visual encapsulation of the unique life story that defines who each of them is.


The pattern then turns into elbow patches on a shirt and a decorative print on a tote bag. There is also a QR code printed at the back of the neck on the shirt, which can be scanned to read the detailed meaning behind each design in English and Korean.

The company's first product is based on Kang's experience on Paektu Mountain. From the story of an electronics repair service worker to an aspiring film director, nine defectors' stories have been captured in ISTORY's growing inventory.

Kang believes the best way to bring an end to social discrimination against North Korean defectors is to share their stories, dreams and struggles through the medium she knows best.
ISTORY’s elbow patches tell the unique stories of North Korean defectors. Photo: courtesy of ISTORY

“The South Korean media, from news articles to even entertainment channels, tends to depict only a fraction of the resettler’s life or identity,” she said. “And that fraction is often provocative and politicised, further contributing to the prejudices that already exist because they speak differently or do not know enough about South Korean society.”

ISTORY's goal is to share the stories of all 35,000 members of the North Korean defector community.

“Eventually, when we have told all of their stories, we want to expand our project to focus on other minority groups whose voices have been marginalised.”

Read the whole story at The Korea Times.