About the Author
View more articles by Hamish Macdonald
Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
Reports suggesting the North Korean government has directly ordered all male college students to adopt haircuts similar to Kim Jong Un are unlikely true, frequent visitors to North Korea told NK News on Thursday.
The story, which emerged in an article published by the Washington DC-based Radio Free Asia (RFA), said on Tuesday that an order for young men to imitate Kim Jong Un’s hairstyle was made two weeks ago and was expected to be strictly enforced – something regular visitors were unable to corroborate.
“I am pretty sure that this is just stupid, everyone had typical haircuts last week,” said Andray Abrahamian, Executive Director of the Singapore-based NGO Choson Exchange – which works regularly with young North Korean professionals.
Gareth Johnson, General Manager of the Beijing-based Young Pioneer Tours, also told NK News that – as of last week – none of his colleagues had seen evidence of the new haircut requirement.
“We were in the country last week and saw no one with said haircut. It seems to be that the BBC must find a new North Korea story every week” Johnson said, alluding to the BBC’s Wednesday pickup of the RFA story.
“We were in the country last week and saw no one with said haircut”
Compared to the Kim Jong Il era, it also seems that there has been a relaxation of existing fashion and style guidelines under Kim Jong Un, a point underscored by Matthew Reichel, Director of the Canadian NGO Pyongyang Project.
“Ever since the Moranbong band was popularized and the DPRK’s first lady was officially announced, there has been a liberalization or the rules. Also, Pyongyang’s middle and upper class youth are quite interested in fashion.
“To suggest that a single style must be adopted around the country is not logical. Of course it is socially acceptable to follow the leaders’ fashion choices, and the Kim Jong Il perm can still be found on street corners from Pyongyang to Chongjin, but that does not mean it is required,” Reichel added.
HAIRSTYLE RUMORS CONTINUE
The RFA report is not the first time stories about state sanctioned haircuts in North Korea have emerged in the media, with a pervasive myth that women must choose from a precise and limited set of approved styles still emerging regularly today.
But the images commonly used to support this claim often focus on tourist posters of a selection of hairstyles featured on the walls of barber shops in Pyongyang – which are actually there to offer clients an idea of potential options, not a mandatory selection.
Nevertheless, the state has involved itself in the past by promoting approved hairstyles and fashions to its citizens.
“In 2005 state media broadcast a candid camera program which “named and shamed” citizens in Pyongyang who had let their hair grow out”
In 2005 a series called “Let us trim our hair in accordance with Socialist lifestyle” was broadcast on state TV in which the narrator urged Korean men to maintain short hairstyles to maintain their “ideological spirit” – as well as for “health reasons” based on the fact longer hair “consumes a great deal of nutrition”.
And in 2005 state media broadcast a candid camera program which “named and shamed” citizens in Pyongyang who had let their hair grow out, broadcasting their name, ID numbers and work units in the hope of influencing viewers to stick with orthodoxy.
A regular visitor to North Korea familiar with rules on hairstyles told NK News that although guidelines do exist, enforcement is rarely a serious issue.
“Yes there is enforcement, but it is not very serious,” said the source, who requested to remain anonymous.
“The fashion enforcers are normally students required to ‘volunteer’ a couple of times a year and are stationed by bus stops, metro stops and busy street corners,” said the source.
The job of the ‘volunteer’ enforcers, much like the reporter in the state TV program, is to stop “inappropriately dressed” citizens, record their ID numbers and to report the infraction to their work unit.
“Yes there is enforcement, but it is not very serious crime”
But guilt of a hairstyle infraction does not necessarily mean that students will be punished.
“It is not really a big deal, they can use this infraction as a theme or point of focus in one of the mandated self criticism sessions that each North Korean is required to take part in,” the source said. “If it happens multiple times, they may get a talking to.”
Rumors about North Korea based on anonymous sources often emerge in the mainstream media, leading to an echo-chamber effect.
Picture: Rodong Sinmun