North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s latest hairstyle set off a frenzy of gawking, if not mocking, coverage in Western media after his new look was made public last week via Pyongyang state news organs.
But in neighboring South Korea, reaction has focused less on Mr. Kim's makeover and more on the foreign fascination with a distant dictator that has found an ever-growing foothold in Western pop culture.
South Korea's cable network Channel A on Saturday discussed the North Korean leader's new style, noting that, “Before the 100 or so executives of the meeting of the [Korean Workers] Party’s political bureau, Kim Jong-un’s appearance was nothing but dignified. But the mood among foreign media ... is one of not being able to keep a straight face.”
Kim’s latest look, featuring a gravity-defying haircut and shortened eyebrows, was revealed at a meeting of high-level members of The Workers’ Party of Korea on Wednesday. Pictures of Kim released by state media spawned reams of irreverent commentary in the US and elsewhere, with his appearance likened to figures ranging from cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants to 80s hip hop duo Kid ’n Play.
Kim achieved notoriety early with various threats in 2013 to incinerate Seoul and to lob nuclear missiles onto American cities. His apparent friendship with former NBA star Dennis Rodman has been much noted in media. But in the past half-year the young leader received the most attention over the satirical, spoofy Hollywood film "The Interview." North Korean hackers were accused of knocking out the computers of Sony Corporation in Tokyo that made the film.
With Oscar night yesterday, Sunday, there has been some speculation – nothing more – as to whether Kim's new look was deliberately revealed ahead of the Hollywood evening. The Interview won no awards in what has become an internationally televised event.
Yet South Korean media outlets have mostly ignored Kim’s new appearance.
“I think it is something we are having fun with and it taps into the pop culture obsession with Kim Jong-un,” says John Delury, an American professor and North Korea watcher at Yonsei University in Seoul.
“It’s really about us, about what we see as important,” he adds, noting a number of fluffy or outlandish stories about the young leader who, along with his Hollywood notoriety, has been the subject of several computer games in recent months.
“They are not significant to the majority of us who watch North Korea closely and they’re not that big a deal in South Korea.”
The appearance and lifestyle of Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, had always been the subject of much discussion since the Dear Leader (as Kim Jong-il was known) had flaunted his own hair, wore platform shoes, and appeared to break the mold of the drab communist leader.
The most serious analyses of the younger Kim’s appearance have related to his resemblance to his grandfather Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder and leader and the most revered figure in the North. Analysts say North Korean propaganda often highlights the similarities between the two as a way of legitimizing the younger Kim’s rule and to remind people of the good old days of plenty, before the floods and starvation of the 1990s and when Moscow and Beijing vied for Pyongyang's attention.
“To the North Korea people, Kim Il-sung is equal to a god. Nobody can dare challenge his sanctity,” says Seo Jeong-nam, a professor at Keimyung University, located in the southeastern city of Daegu, who has studied North Korean propaganda. “By imitating the form of his grandfather and leader Kim Il-sung... Kim Jong-un is trying for a status of supreme dignity, of a supreme leader.”