April 29, 2004

Where, oh Where, is the Dear Leader's Hair?

Posted by Ed

There was a time when the study of Soviet politics--or Kremlinology--was best-known for its analysis of seemingly trivial signs that change was afoot in the U.S.S.R. (Who was standing closest to Leonid Brezhnev in a picture? How prominent was the mention of some minor party functionary?) I was reminded of those days earlier this morning, when I came across a delightful article in the Style section of The Washington Post:

North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il's surprise summit in China last week took the top off of at least one of the Pyongyang government's best-kept secrets: The Dear Leader is losing his famed big hair.

Indeed, the familiar profile of Kim, 62, has long been characterized by his luxuriously piled bouffant. But in a photo-op during his trip to Beijing that ended last week, Kim turned his back to the rolling cameras in a fateful moment to embrace Chinese leaders. Then, boom, it came into focus -- the shiny patches of the Dear Scalp glistening between strategically combed curls.

That this image of Kim's thinning hair -- quickly scooped up by international media outlets -- got past Chinese censors appeared to be a humorous coincidence at the least. At the most, it showed a Chinese lack of sensitivity to the role of Kim's hair in North Korea's body politic.

For any another totalitarian leader, a collapsing coiffure might raise nary an eyebrow. Who, after all, would have noticed if Pol Pot or Augusto Pinochet needed a little Rogaine? But Kim's high and mighty mane, teased into a mushroom cloud and appearing capable of doing equal damage, has become the defining symbol of his unique dictatorial style. Here is a despot who has ruled not only with an iron fist, but with dynamic hair.

"He may be the Dear Leader, but he is not such a tall man," said Nam Sung Wook, professor of North Koreanology at Seoul's Korea University. "So he needs to look bigger, look greater, so the people in North Korea and the world will know his true stature. He does that with the hair."

My favorite part of the article came later, however:

Kim once lobbed a test missile over Japan in 1998. But the North Korean leader has nevertheless become an underground fashion icon in Tokyo's teenage subculture. Various Web sites in Japan and around the world celebrate Kim's hair. One titled "Kim Jong Il's Fan Club" shows a disco-dancing Kim, hair stretching toward the heavens. In specialty stores selling North Korean memorabilia, lapel pins of Kim Jong Il spirited out of North Korea outsell those of Kim Il Sung. Especially sought after are the pins showing an extra-poufy Kim Jong Il, which sell for more than $80 each.

A comic book about the life of Kim Jong Il, first published in South Korea, has sold more than 500,000 copies in Japan. The book includes popular close-ups of Kim and his ever-expanding hair. In its sequel, Kim is a tights-wearing, big-haired "Superman of Darkness."

Charming, huh?

Posted by Ed at April 29, 2004 11:08 AM

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