Kim Jong Un’s latest nuclear threats came across loud and clear in his New Year’s address—but his clothes seem to be sending mixed messages.
On Monday, the North Korean leader broke tradition, swapping out his standard black Mao suit for a Western-style gray one, which he wore to announce that he had “a button for nuclear weapons” on his table. He went on to warn that the entire mainland United States was well within his nuclear strike range.
When a supreme leader is threatening to obliterate a country from the face of the planet, it may not seem like the best time to talk fashion. But it’s possible Un had dressed just for the occasion: The last time Un ditched his standard black suit was in May 2016, when he spoke before a rare gathering of Worker’s Party delegates—the first in over three decades. Standing before the thousands of delegates, Un wore a pin-striped suit and a silver tie.
At the time, Un had also spoken about North Korea’s nuclear program, reportedly bragging that “unprecedented results [had] been accomplished.”
BuzzFeed News concluded that though the suit looked dated—evoking a “very early 90s Hugo Boss” style—it seemed to be made from the same material as his other classic black suits.
Un’s black suits, or Mao suits—which are tunic-length with buttons and a high collar—are a nod to Chinese communism, and were first introduced by Chinese Republic founder Sun Yat-sen in the 19th century. The suit style, according to the BBC, came to symbolize nationhood, and combined both Western and Eastern elements.
“By the time the catastrophic Cultural Revolution dawned in 1966 the Mao suit–with its abiding notions of nationhood–was one of the only acceptable forms of dress in China,” the BBC reported in November 2015. “This was an era in which wearing ‘bourgeois’ attire could result in being attacked in the street or worse. Items considered decadent, like jewelry, make-up and high-heels, were banned.”
A curator at a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit about Chinese fashion told the Washington Post at the time: “Subsequently, no other item of clothing screams China to the West.”
So what was Un trying to scream when he opted for a more Western look while threatening the demise of one of the world’s largest Western powers?
Nothing good, most likely.