North Korea

To boost image, North Korea permits soldiers grow out hair up to 3 centimeters


‘The soldiers were so thin from not being able to eat … that the shaved heads made them look like prisoners.’

To boost image, North Korea permits soldiers grow out hair up to 3 centimeters

In this Sept. 8, 2018 photo, North Korean People’s Army soldiers watch a concert at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium, Pyongyang, North Korea.

In permission supposedly granted from Kim Jong Un himself, North Korean soldiers are now allowed to grow out their hair to a length of three centimeters so that they no longer look like convicts whose heads are shaved, sources in the country told Radio Free Asia.

Previously, men who served in North Korea’s 1.3 million-strong military – seven years is mandatory for all able-bodied men – were required to keep their hair length under 1 millimeter. 

While in more plentiful times, the well-fed soldiers were easily distinguishable from malnourished prisoners, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, reflecting poorly on the military’s image. 

According to the propaganda, supreme leader Kim Jong Un felt sorry for the men and so relaxed the haircut standards, a military official in the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“The permission to grow their hair up to three centimeters comes from the supreme commander’s thoughtful consideration for the units, at least in propaganda,” the source said. 

“The measure was reluctantly taken because the soldiers were so thin from not being able to eat properly that the shaved heads made them look like prisoners,” he said. “The change is being used to promote the greatness of the commander-in-chief.”

In preparation for the new regulations, the military began training some soldiers as barbers in January, the source said. Each company has been assigned a new recruit to this role. Before, soldiers shaved each other’s heads with clippers.

Soldiers’ complaints

But another source in Ryanggang province, near the Chinese border, who confirmed the development said it also was prompted by complaints from the soldiers themselves.

“The military has been saying that the supreme commander took the matter under special consideration, but the authorities were forced to make this move because so many soldiers had been griping that they were indistinguishable from prisoners because of their shaved heads,” the second source said.

The haircut policy had been one of many reasons that high school students try to avoid military service, according to the second source. Those who attend university can be given deferrals and those deemed medically unfit can get exemptions. 

He was doubtful that the haircut change would do much to improve the military’s image.

“Even if the authorities allow soldiers to grow their hair up to 30 millimeters, will it change the perception of the military?” the second source asked. “You have to spend seven years suffering from hunger and hard work. Who would want to sign up?”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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