As North Korea makes threats of a “super-mighty preemptive strike” against the United States while tensions continue to escalate between North Korea and an alarming number of nations, many are looking for clues as to the psyche of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and the hereditary dictatorship that has long governed the state.
One perhaps unexpected source of insight? North Korea’s standards of beauty, both formal and informal.
As a recent tweet has once gain brought to light, North Korea allegedly maintains a list of state-approved hairstyles for women. In the past, there have been many reports by Western media that both sexes have a short list of state-approved haircut models.
Menu of state-approved haircuts at North Korean hair salon. Choices include half-moon style, butterfly style, crystal style, wave style pic.twitter.com/vC2hs6fMNr
— Jonathan Kaiman (@JRKaiman) April 16, 2017
But there’s more to the story than that, warns Katharine H.S. Moon, PhD, a professor of political science and the Wasserman Chair of Asian Studies at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. Reports of state-mandated beauty standards in North Korea “have to be taken with much skepticism,” notes Moon, also a nonresident senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution.
“There’s no evidence that their hairstyles must follow totalitarian regulation,” Moon tells Yahoo Beauty. “Even if posters of styles and models says it’s the ‘rule,’ it could be that private citizens — barbers, beauticians, storekeepers — came up with ideas but put them under the safe umbrella of the state. People using the state to make money, rather than the other way around.” She adds, “It’s hard to find evidence that ‘state-approved’ [hairstyles] were implemented.”
The professor points to the 2014 story following the death of Kim Jong Il and during his son Kim Jong Un’s assumption of power that North Korean students were told to copy the latter’s hairstyle as a way of shoring up his influence.
“This has been disputed by observers,” Moon says. “Some say [the style was adopted by] all North Korean men, some say just students, and others says this was a myth.”
Furthermore, Moon notes, there are also reports from the country that Kim Jong Un’s haircut is actually unpopular in North Korea “because it resembles the style of Chinese smugglers and thugs.”
When it comes to reports of beauty standards for both men and women, Moon — who traveled to North Korea in the summer of 2013 — says “my own eyes are my best witness.” She describes seeing women in Pyongyang with a variety of haircuts and styles, and men sporting both “old-fashioned” and more contemporary, professional hairstyles.
“Pyongyang residents tend to be the elite or privileged minority,” Moon notes. “They do follow fashion trends. Young women tended to follow the styles worn by the zippy and ‘sexy’ female instrumentalists and singers by the popular Moranbong [the girl band whose members were selected by Kim Jong Un]. When the performers wore longer hair, women copied those. When most of them got short ‘boy cuts,’ many women copied them too. Many North Korean women also imitate the fashion trends on South Korean TV shows that get smuggled into North Korea.”
Moon says that even the now massively-popular-in-the-West South Korean beauty products and regime are likewise popular among North Korean women — and adds that while she has heard from reputable sources that no North Koreans are allowed to dye their hair or wear tight clothing, she herself saw “the exact opposite.”
She describes women in “high-heel sandals with rhinestones and glitz” wearing “tight jeans” or shorts over leggings, riding Pyongyang’s subways. “No one even looked [at women dressed like this] as off, except for my academic colleagues and me,” Moon says. She also recalls seeing “young middle and high school girls [waiting] for trains in their crisp school uniforms and fancy-looking high heels. And they were self-consciously proud of their look.”
Furthermore, reports also exist of wealthy young people dyeing their hair yellow as a subtle sign of protest, suggesting malnourishment.
Outside of Pyongyang, however, it’s a different story altogether. In the impoverished countryside, Moon notes that people are “visibly poor and struggling.” But in general, she warns that thinking about North Korean beauty standards through the lens of uniformity and coercion is erroneous without additional context — and adds that required uniformity is not unique.
“Japan and South Korea all required uniformity in clothing and hairstyles, and in many workplace settings, even offices, during the 1950s through the 1980s, before the democratic transition in South Korea between 1987 and 1988,” she says. “Putting North Korea in the context of other societies gives us a better idea of what is and is not unique.”