Are North Korean Men Really Forced To Get Kim Jong-Un's Signature Hairdo?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's distinctive hairstyle is the 'do of the day on the Internet, thanks to a viral report that every male university student in the capital is now under orders to get a cut just like it. But it appears the barbers of Pyongyang aren't exactly sharpening their scissors.

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From BBC to TIME, a number of news outlets have picked up hair raising headlines from North Korea: "Male students of the Hermit Kingdom are being forced to get 'Kim Jong-Un-style' haircuts"

Basically every viral-minded news website on the planet is running a story today about how North Korea is requiring men to get their hair cut like Kim Jong-un.

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un presides over a meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea.

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The story goes that male citizens in North Korean capital Pyongyong have had new guidelines to replicate Kim's distinctive haircut for the past couple of weeks, and the plan is to go national with the guidelines.

Photos showing example hair styles hang inside a barber shop in Pyongyang, North Korea on Feb. 20, 2013.

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As you can probably understand, not everyone is happy with the news. "It doesn’t always go with everyone since everyone has different face and head shapes,” one source was reported as saying.

It's a crazy story, but where did it come from? And should we believe it? Well, let's first consider the source.

For example, the BBC picked up the story on its News from Elsewhere blog, sourcing much of the story to the Korea Times, an English-language paper published by the Hankook Ilbo group.

According to BBC, Male university students in North Korea are now required to get the same haircut as their leader Kim Jong-un.

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The Korea Times, meanwhile, appears to have gotten the story from Radio Free Asia, a non-profit funded in part by the United States government.

Like most news out of North Korea, it should be treated with some skepticism and is already being picked apart to some extent

Experts on the region have already cast their doubts on the verity of the news. "This sounds like BS to me," said Aidan Foster Carter, an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea at Leeds University in Britain told the Washington Post. "For a start, no one else in North Korea seems to sport a Kim Jong Un hairdo!"

Kim Jong-Un having a light moment with his officers in his office

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"I think we can add this to the long list of ridiculous news stories on North Korea," said Andray Abrahamian, Executive Director of Choson Exchange, a Singaporean non-profit providing training in business, economic policy and law to young North Koreans. "Everybody had typical haircuts there last week when we were there for a Women in Business program."

Not a single bourgeois ponytail in sight ...North Korean leader Kim Jong Un poses for a photo with some of his followers

Image via Reuters

Chad O'Carroll, editor of the North Korean-watching website NKNews was also skeptical, forwarding a message from a reader of his Web site who had recently been in Pyongyang and had not seen Kim's haircut replicated anywhere. NK News has now written an article that argues the hairstyle order is "unlikely true," citing numerous sources.

This is not to say that the North Korean government hasn’t been unusually preoccupied with the hair of its citizens

As far back as 2005, the country’s state-run media launched a campaign titled “Let us trim our hair in accordance with Socialist lifestyle,” which apparently argued that long hair "consumes a great deal of nutrition" and could hinder intellectual development.

A poster showing the example of 'Let us trim our hair in accordance with Socialist lifestyle'

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In 2008 the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, citing some dubious sources, reported that while watching a university soccer match, the late Kim Jong-il became quite perturbed.

According to an insider, after realizing that several of the Kim Il-sung University players were sporting long hair, Kim declared it to "look disgusting," and said "I can't tell if this is men's soccer or women's soccer."

Photos showing example hair styles hang inside a hair salon in Pyongyang, North Korea on Feb. 20, 2013.

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The article claimed that shortly after the game, notices were placed in workplaces across the country banning long hair. Then last year it was reported that the country had released a list of 28 approved hairstyles—18 for women and 10 for men.

Photos showing example hair styles hang inside a barber shop in Pyongyang, North Korea on Feb. 20, 2013.

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Oddly enough, the list falls short of including its young leader Kim Jong Un’s current look — a variation on the high-and-tight that may be too much of a power ‘do for North Korea’s non-elite.

But whether or not there has been a haircut decree, Kim Jong-Un's style is probably more important than you might think

"Kim Jong Un's haircut is a very particular one, shaved up the sides to make him look like Kim Il Sung did when he was in his 30s (i.e., in the late 1940s)," Bruce Cumings, an expert in Korean history from the University of Chicago, wrote in an e-mail.

Late Kim il Sung, on whom Kim's haircut is based on.

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"This occurred right after Kim Jong Il died, Kim Jong Un was sporting this cut in January 2012 and it was clearly meant to identify him with his grandfather, not his father."

Kim Jong-Un sporting his late grandfather's haircut

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The truth is the diversity of hairstyles tolerated in North Korea is probably greater than we might expect, especially for women. For men, the relative uniformity of hairstyles appears to be something else: A trend.

"If many young men are shaving their sideburns to look like Kim Jong Un, it is probably an attempt to show how loyal they are to the leadership," Cumings reasons. "This is a longstanding, critical aspect of North Korean politics, that people strain in every way to show their loyalty, often taking things to absurd lengths (like dropping their voices when they mention the great leader). Common sense will tell anyone that trying to out-loyal the next guy leads to absurdity, but that hasn't dawned on many Koreans in the North."
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Adam Cathcart, a Lecturer in Chinese History at University of Leeds who is also editor of the SinoNK Web site, agrees with this theory. "Haircuts are somewhat generational. To my knowledge, there was no 'decree' about getting hair cut significantly shorter just above the ears than had previously been the norms, but more and more young non-military men seemed to do it, and after [Kim's uncle Jang Sung Taek-taek]'s execution there has appeared to be more such haircuts of such styled people shown on state media, at any rate," Cathcart said.
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"But no one has 'the' haircut except for Kim Jong Un, since it's getting higher and higher and is practically a mohawk [now]." "Don't mistake a decree for a trend!" Cathcart added.

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