- By Jake Scobey-ThalJake Scobey-Thal is assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy. Previously, he worked as a freelance reporter in Myanmar and as the Asia Associate for Human Rights Watch. His articles have appeared in The Nation, Next City magazine, and Salon among others. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Listen up, depraved youth of North Korea: Your long-haired revolution is officially over.
According to Radio Free Asia, the North Korean government has introduced guidelines mandating all male university students get the same haircut as Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un — a tight fade on the sides and an awkward middle part on a floppy cut up top. The decree was reportedly issued in the capital, Pyongyang, two weeks ago and is now being implemented nationwide.
As with most stories out of the Hermit Kingdom, these latest claims about North Korean fashion come thinly sourced. The story may very well be false — its veracity has already been called into question. But if true, it wouldn’t be the first time the government has sought to impose restrictions on hairstyles. Last year, the regime outlined 28 acceptable cuts — 10 for men and 18 for women — that were showcased in framed photos in hair salons in Pyongyang. And in 2005, North Korea launched a crusade against long hair. A media campaign declaring "let us trim our hair in accordance with Socialist lifestyle" urged men to shear based on "the demands of the military-first era." Hair, wrote Minju Choson, a government daily, is a "very important issue that shows the people’s cultural standards and mental and moral state."
In the magnitude of its depression and deplorable human rights record, North Korea is unique; in its alleged strategy of social control by buzzcut, it is not. In fact, authoritarian regimes around the world have for centuries imposed their political will by regulating men’s locks.
After the Manchus conquered China in the 1640s, the empire’s new rulers issued an edict forcing all adult men to shave the front of their head and tie the remaining hair in a queue, a long braided ponytail. The rule was imposed under penalty of death. The edict, former American diplomat Edward Earl Rice writes in his book, Mao’s Way, reminded the "Chinese of their subordination to Manchu rule." From the conquerors’ perspective, "the command to cut one’s hair or lose one’s head not only brought rulers and subjects together into a single physical resemblance; it also provided them with a perfect loyalty test," the historian Frederic Wakeman notes in The Great Enterprise, his book about the Manchu conquest.
Around the same time in Russia, Peter the Great attempted to stamp out beards, which he viewed as a hopeless relic of his country’s past. Hoping to modernize Russia in the mold of the West, he imposed a beard tax. Individuals who paid the tariff were given a copper token inscribed with the motto: "The beard is a useless burden."
Several centuries later, during the 1970s, Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha did away with such free-market methods and outlawed beards all together. Saparmurat Niyazov, the former president of Turkmenistan, mimicked this crackdown on personal freedom when he appeared on television in February 2004 to decree that young men could no longer grow out their hair or beards.
Elsewhere in the world, decrees governing grooming have often been issued in the name of Islam. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, they required men to wear beards in accordance with with the militants’ harsh interpretation of Sharia law. In 2010, Islamic militants in Somalia ordered men in the capital of Mogadishu to leave beards untrimmed.
Iran’s clerics imposed their own brand of religiously-motivated restrictions in 2010: Ponytails and mullets were out, in favor of tightly-coiffed crew-cuts and side-parts. "The proposed styles are inspired by Iranians’ complexion, culture and religion, and Islamic law," said Jaleh Khodayar, the director of Iran’s Veil and Chastity Day festival. Hair gel was permitted, but only in modest quantities.
Regardless of religion, authoritarians don’t seem to have much love for hippies. After overthrowing Greece’s elected government in a 1967 military coup, strongman Georgios Papadopoulos banned "decadent" long hair for men and mini-skirts for women. During the 1970’s, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew denied some foreigners entry into Singapore if their hair was too long. Young people without a clean cut, as Alex Josey writes in his book Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years, "are not employed as caddies at the golf courses where Lee swings his clubs."
Power: Sometimes it grows from a barber’s clippers.