The above photo, released by the North Korean state media agency KCNA on Jan. 20, purports to show leader Kim Jong Eun visiting a new hospital, Taesongsan General Hospital, being built by the national army.
Here's what confused me, and what also confused the Atlantic's David Graham, who pointed this out on Twitter, where it puzzled a number of other people: Why is that surgeon dressed like a chef? Or is he not meant to be a doctor at all and, moments after this photo was taken, perhaps laid a delicious spread of caviar and papayas across the operating table? Or maybe Pyongyang has started training surgeon-chef hybrids to save money?
Alas, it turns out that this is just how North Korean surgeons dress. Here, for example, is a 2007 photo from a North Korean hospital in Sariwon province. The original Getty caption included this line: "Because of obsolete equipment and mediocre hygiene conditions, North Korean surgeons often have to perform in a difficult environment."
Why do they wear those hats? I can't say for sure, although it's certainly not the sort of cover you'd find in other countries. I found some official recommendations for head coverings from the Association of Surgical Technologists, which stressed the importance of covering all hair to keep out infections. Their report suggests disposable "bouffant" covers like this one. They don't mention whether or not chef hats are okay.
In any case, the hospital is not yet operating, so the hat is just for show.
You can read much more about Kim Jong Eun's hospital visit at the ever-obsessive blog North Korea Leadership Watch. Kim, borrowing from his grandfather's penchant for touring to various spots and dispensing "on-the-spot guidance" that was supposedly brilliant but often mundane and superficial, reportedly offered such pearls as, "It is important to provide all amenities favorable for health care and treatment of patients while building it splendidly and fashionably."
More on North Korea: The Cannibals of North Korea