A number of news outlets have picked up on unusual news out of North Korea today: Male citizens of the Hermit Kingdom are being forced to get "Kim Jong Un-style" haircuts.
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. 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. Radio Free Asia's story only appears on the Korean-language version of its Web site, though a representative says that it will be translated soon.
Regarding the second question, most North Korean experts I reached out to seemed inclined to believe that the story couldn't be true.
"This sounds like BS to me," said Aidan Foster Carter, an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea at Leeds University in Britain. "For a start, no one else in North Korea seems to sport a Kim Jong Un hairdo!"
"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."
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.
Even if there has been no haircut decree, Kim'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. "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."
While there have been many reports that hairstyles are strictly restricted in North Korea and Cumings concedes that long hair and other more extreme styles are prohibited, 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."
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. "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.
Does this mean that Radio Free Asia's story is wrong? Not necessarily – there are not many reporters in North Korea and RFA may simply have better sources than others right now. It is, however, a reminder to treat stories of extreme crazy behavior from North Korea with skepticism. Over the past year, we had unbelievable stories about Kim Jong Un executing his ex-girlfriend for making sex tapes, and having his uncle eaten by dogs. These stories are hard to confirm or deny, but there's a lot of reason to believe they are not true – the latter story appears to have been based on satire, for example.
Kim's haircut may seem a mundane story in comparison, but its effect as a viral story is the same: To dismiss Kim's leadership as silly or insane. Given the number of credible reports that detail the horrors of the North Korean life, the trivialization of the country's regime is unhelpful at best, and dangerous at worst.
UPDATE: Radio Free Asia have translated their original Korean language story into English. You can read it here.