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Inside North Korea

Hair Shops in N. Korea



As the weather is getting warmer and warmer, many are wondering how to find a fresh hairstyle to try on in this lovely spring season. Around this time of year, hair shops are usually crowded with people, although many have refrained from going outside lately due to the spread of COVID-19. 

In South Korea, running a beauty shop is one of the most popular business items for those who consider starting their own business. According to the National Tax Service in 2017, there were about 66-thousand hair salons in South Korea, while the industry estimated that the number would reach 80-thousand. Of course, hair shops are operated by individuals in South Korea. But that’s not the case in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Let’s hear from Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector and reporter at the online newspaper, Daily NK. 

After I came to South Korea, I was surprised to see individual businesspeople running barbershops on a large scale and even opening branches. That’s certainly different from North Korea, where barbershops and hair salons belong to state organizations. In other words, they are all approved and operated by the state. In fact, private hair dressers do exist in the North. But they do not run their shops officially, like hanging up a sign, but move around from place to place. 

State-approved beauty shops in North Korea are mostly visited by people who are aged over 40, as they follow style guidelines set by the government, rather than seek the latest hairstyles. It is said that hair standards recommended by the government are put on the wall of the shops. It is little wonder that trend-savvy people in their 20s rarely go to state-run hair shops. 

Hair shops in the North have posters or books that show desired hair styles. While university students here in South Korea have their own different hair styles, their North Korean counterparts conform to almost a single style so anyone can recognize them as university students. For example, female students have a bobbed cut and tuck their hair behind their ears. They have natural hair without a perm and part their hair on the right. Middle-aged women mostly have short hair, as they spend much time in the kitchen. 

Young people in North Korea prefer to use privately-run beauty shops, which can meet the needs of customers without interference from the government. There, customers can change their hair in a trendy way. If they want to get their hair colored, other than just black, options are available at their disposal. 

It is said that most North Korean people who visit hair salons want to follow the hairstyles of actors and actresses shown in South Korean TV soaps that are smuggled into the North, as the South Korean styles are regarded as fashionable. 

If a hairdresser does a customer’s hair in an old-fashioned, North Korean style, the customer may not like it and will choose to go to a different hair shop. Even more so if the customer is a fan of South Korean dramas. So, hairdressers have to watch South Korean films and dramas to keep pace with the latest trends. Recent videos of North Korea show a lot of local residents wearing South Korean hairstyles. If a South Korean drama proves to be a great hit, the hairstyle of the heroine in the drama will soon be all the rage in North Korea. 

Not just with South Korean celebrities, as North Korean First Lady Ri Sol-ju is also drawing attention from many women in the North. Her chic hairstyles shown at public events have promoted her sophisticated image. Those who hope to copy her hairstyles go to private beauty shops. It is easy to imagine that private shops are much more expensive than state-run ones. People have to save money for quite a long time to visit a private hair shop. 

Prices at state-operated hair shops are fixed at 2,000 North Korean won, regardless of hairstyles. But it costs 6,000 to 12,000 won at private salons, as far as I know, as North Korean women have shown great interest in beauty treatment since the 2010s. And some private shops charge a whopping 150-thousand won, which is equivalent to dozens of kilograms of rice. Some are eager to spend such a large sum of money on their hair treatment, asking for a particular hairstyle they saw in a movie.

On February 28, a North Korean government newspaper commented that simple types of hairdos like bobbed hair, a pony tail and braided hair are ideal for women. Under the title of “Decent Dress, Elegant Hairstyle,” the paper called Minju Choson, which is translated as “Democratic Korea,” urged women to refrain from long hair. It said that women may think their long hair makes them look beautiful, but long hair doesn’t really look good. It even claimed that long hair can affect their intelligence because their body consumes more nutrition to make hair grow. Why does North Korea even control people’s hairstyles through its state-run paper? 

In North Korea, long, loose hair is associated with capitalistic culture. I think the North Korean government is concerned about its potential effect on people’s ideology, in the belief that their fashion and hairstyles reflect their thoughts. When people see a woman with long hair, they believe she is greatly influenced by capitalism. Many more women with long hair, therefore, may affect people’s perception of capitalism overall. To hold a tighter grip on people, North Korea stresses conformity in neat and tidy hairstyles. The North uses an image of long, wild hair when slandering South Korea or a describing a South Korean woman in a local movie. In contrast, it encourages women to have short hair or tie their hair back. 

North Korean authorities control hairstyles of North Korean women, but more and more customers are choosing to get their hair done at privately-run beauty shops. This happens despite that prices are up to 20 times more expensive than those at state-operated shops. Naturally, the number of private hair salons is on the rise. Many young women in the North save every penny to emulate South Korean styles, reflecting their desire to keep up with the latest trends and fads. Obviously, North Korean people’s cultural perception is changing considerably, compared to the past.

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