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October 22, 2014

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Mandatory Kim Jong Un haircuts a baldfaced lie?

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Wong Maye-E / AP

In this July 27, 2013, file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to war veterans during a mass military parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite thinly sourced reports that an order went out in mid-March 2014 for university students to buzz cut the sides of their heads just like North Korea’s supreme leader, recent visitors to the country say they haven’t seen evidence of any mass haircutting.

TOKYO — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's distinctive hairstyle is the 'do of the day on the Internet, thanks to a viral report that every male university student in the capital is now under orders to get a buzz just like it. But it appears the barbers of Pyongyang aren't exactly sharpening their scissors.

Recent visitors to the country say they've seen no evidence of any mass haircutting. North Korea watchers smell another imaginative but uncorroborated rumor.

The thinly sourced reports say an order went out a few weeks ago for university students to buzz cut the sides of their heads just like Kim. Washington, D.C.-based Radio Free Asia cited unnamed sources as saying an unwritten directive from somewhere within the ruling Workers' Party went out early this month, causing consternation among students who didn't think the new 'do would suit them.

"I was there just a few days ago, and no sign of that," said Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours, which specializes in bringing foreign tourists to North Korea. "It's definitely not true."

An AP journalist in Pyongyang also said he had not seen any recent changes in hairstyles among college students in the capital.

Wide interest in the reports reflect the fascination the outside world has had with the unique hairstyles of both Kim Jong Un and his father, the late Kim Jong Il, who had a one-of-a-kind bouffant.

Though the forced grooming story may be one of many reported oddities about North Korea life that turn out to be false, it is true that the government has its own "fashion police."

Choe Cheong-ha, a defector who left North Korea in 2004, said members of a government-run youth organization routinely check for people who are not dressed appropriately. He said they look for whether people are wearing the mandatory lapel pins with the images of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, or for violations such as blue jeans, clothes with English words or above-the-knee dresses.

But Choe said directives on hairstyles weren't much of an issue, since most people voluntarily keep their hair neat and conservatively styled.

In 2005, however, the government waged war against men with long hair, calling them unhygienic anti-socialist fools and directing them to wear their hair "socialist style." It derided shabbily coifed men as "blind followers of bourgeois lifestyle." The country's state-run Central TV even identified violators by name and address, exposing them to jeers from other citizens.

The hair campaign, dubbed "Let's trim our hair according to socialist lifestyle," required that hair be kept no longer than 5 centimeters (2 inches). Older men received a small exemption to allow comb-overs.

The campaign claimed long hair hampers brain activity by taking oxygen away from nerves in the head. It didn't explain why women were allowed to grow long hair.

With women's hair, too, there have been misperceptions.

Photos of suggested hairstyles posted outside women's hair salons — the kind allow a customer to show her hairdresser what she wants — are regularly depicted by foreign media as showing the only sanctioned styles North Korean women can choose from.

Not true. But don't tell that to the Internet.

Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed.

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