Mandatory Kim Jong-un Haircuts in North Korea: A Baldfaced Lie?

By Eric Talmadge

TOKYO (AP) -- Have all male university students in North Korea been ordered to get haircuts like their leader, Kim Jong Un? The Internet certainly says so.

The thinly sourced reports say an order went out a few weeks ago for university students to buzz cut the sides of their heads just like North Korea's leader. But recent visitors to the country say they haven't seen evidence of any mass haircutting.

The haircut reports started with a story by Washington, D.C.-based Radio Free Asia, which cited unnamed sources as saying an unwritten directive from somewhere within the ruling Workers' Party went out early this month, causing consternation among students who didn't think the new do would suit them.

It also said the style reminded some of the kind of haircut associated with smugglers in bygone days.

Interesting. Weird.

But reader beware: Many North Korea observers suspect it's a baseless rumor.

"I was there just a few days ago, and no sign of that," said Simon Cockerell of Koyro Tours, which specializes in bringing foreign tourists to North Korea. "It's definitely not true."

An AP journalist in Pyongyang also said he had not seen any recent changes in hairstyles among college students in the capital.

The North Korea-watching website NK News wrote a story debunking the rumor under the headline, "Why men's Kim Jong Un hairstyle requirement is unlikely true."

So maybe the barbers of Pyongyang are still sharpening their scissors. Or perhaps - like a lot of reported oddities about life in largely opaque North Korea - it's just hot air.

Choe Cheong-ha, a defector who left North Korea in 2004, said the country does have its own fashion police - members of a government-run youth organization who routinely check for people who are not dressed appropriately. He said they look for whether people are wearing the mandatory lapel pins with the images of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, or for violations such as blue jeans, clothes with English words or above-the-knee dresses for women.

But Choe said directives on hairstyles weren't much of an issue, since most people voluntarily keep their hair neat and conservatively styled.

None of this is to say, however, that hair hasn't been on the minds of North Korean officials - or Internet meme makers - before.

In 2005, the government waged war against men with long hair, calling them unhygienic anti-socialist fools and directing them to wear their hair "socialist style," deriding shabbily coifed men as "blind followers of bourgeois lifestyle." The country's state-run Central TV even identified violators by name and address, exposing them to jeers from other citizens.

The hair campaign, which was dubbed "Let's trim our hair according to socialist lifestyle," required that hair be kept no longer than five centimeters (two inches). But the state trendsetters allowed an exception: old men can grow hair up to seven centimeters (2.8 inches) to hide balding.

The campaign claimed long hair hampers brain activity by taking oxygen away from nerves in the head. It didn't explain why women were allowed to grow long hair.

On the flip side, the Internet has long been fascinated by the unique hairstyles of both Kim Jong Un and his father, Kim Jong Il, who had a one-of-a-kind bouffant. And photos of suggested hairstyles posted outside women's hair salons - the kind of photos a customer points at to speed up the explanation process - are regularly depicted by foreign media as showing the only sanctioned styles North Korean women can choose from.

Not true. But don't tell that to the Internet.

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Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

© 2014 The Associated Press

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