It all started with a 150-word piece in the English language version of The Korea Times (citing a report by Radio Free Asia). “‘Dear leader haircut’ forced on NK students,” read the brief article’s headline, published yesterday. An unnamed source alleged that, starting two weeks ago, men in the Hermit Kingdom were being forced to trim their hair to match the so-called “Chinese smuggler” cut sported by Kim Jong-un.
“Our leader’s haircut is very particular, if you will. It doesn’t always go with everyone since everyone has different face and head shapes,” the anonymous source told reporters. “It started from [the] capital Pyongyang, and now [it’s] spreading all across the country.”
Despite the title, the word “student” didn’t appear once in the actual story.
Regardless of the dubious source and confusing headline, news organizations across the globe jumped on the “viral goldmine.” The unclear inclusion of “student” was dropped entirely:
“Every Man in North Korea Now Has to Get a Kim Jong-Un Haircut” – Gawker
“North Korea mandates Kim Jong-un haircut for all men” – Washington Times
“North Korean men must get Kim Jong Un’s haircut” – New York Daily News
Suddenly, the “Kim trim” story is shaping up to be grossly exaggerated at best and entirely false at worst. Today’s sensational headlines feel eerily reminiscent of another hard-to-believe story that went viral in January.
Following the execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, a Chinese newspaper ran an article claiming that the disgraced politician was fed to a pack of 120 hungry dogs. Unsurprisingly, it proved to be false.
NK News was one of the first to cry foul on the latest report.
“I am pretty sure that this is just stupid, everyone had typical haircuts last week,” Andray Abrahamian, Executive Director of the Singapore-based NGO Choson Exchange, told the site.
“We were in the country last week and saw no one with said haircut,” added Gareth Johnson, General Manager of Young Pioneer Tours.
Slate’s Joshua Keating pointed out that, while the latest haircut story is almost certainly a hoax, it isn’t without precedent. Back in 2005, North Korea launched a media campaign which argued that long hair “consumes a great deal of nutrition” and should thus be kept short.
If anything, a possible increase in men shaving the sides of their head in Dear Leader fashion could simply be a conscious, not mandatory, sign of respect.
“Don’t mistake a decree for a trend,” Adam Cathcart, a Chinese history professor at the University of Leeds and the editor of a website that focuses on Chinese-North Korea relations, told The Washington Post.
UPDATE: Radio News Asia has released an updated English translation of its article, which offers a great deal of clarification:
The instruction for male students to get the same haircut as their leader is not based on any directive from Kim but on a recommendation from the ruling Workers’ Party, according to a North Korean from North Hamgyong province near the border with China.