To Hair Is Human: Was North Korea Haircut Story Fake?

A report on Slate questions the credibility of a story gone viral worldwide.

Xia, a 38-year-old lookalike of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
Xia, a 38-year-old lookalike of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, smokes a cigarette at his barbeque food stall in Shenyang, Liaoning province, China, March 22, 2014. Reuters

From the BBC to TIME, no self-respecting publication could afford Wednesday to miss out on a fascinating report – and viral goldmine: The news that North Korea's reclusive regime had ordered all men in North Korea to get the same haircut as their Dear Leader, Kim Jong Un.

Kim's antics have received worldwide attention in the past, and have ranged from seasonal confrontations with South Korea and the West to the cruel dispatching of dissenting family members (his uncle). We all know he loves basketball so much that Denis Rodman is a guest of honor on the northern side of the peninsula, and many of us have heard about his falling out with his girlfriend, which ended with a firing squad.

But perhaps exactly because of the reclusive nature of the regime, stories like the one carried by the Korea Times on Wednesday are hard to verify, leading some critics to question the entire thing.

In his blog, Slate's Joshua Keating picked apart the report, highlighting some suspect points. First, he said, the recent visitors to Pyongyang who are quoted in the report "don't recall seeing people with unusual haircuts."

He then went on to lay out past and equally as dubious hair-related stories that emerged from North Korea – a 2008 Japanese report alledging Kim banned long hair after watching a soccer match, and a 2013 Telegraph article claiming Pyongyang had sanctioned 28 approved hair styles, 14 for men and 14 for women.

"In other words," concluded Keating, "it’s true that the North Korean state discourages long hair… But enforcement of these rules seems to be pretty lax and it seems extremely unlikely that every man in the country is now walking around with an imitation of Kim Jong-un’s Macklemore-ish side-shaved do."