News outlets around the world reported yesterday that it was now mandatory for all male students in North Korea to have the exact same haircut as their current Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Un. Imagine a world where we all had to have hair like David Cameron. At least Dear Leader's got cool hair, some concluded.
It transpires now that the hair story might be fake – NK News alleges that it's "unlikely true", and recently spoke to several Western businessmen who regularly enter the country who confirmed it. "I am pretty sure that this is just stupid, everyone had typical haircuts last week," one Singaporean businessman said.
It just goes to show that we'll believe almost anything that's said about North Korea. Given the secrecy of its regime, it's unsurprising that the public impression of the Hermit Kingdom is one riddled with cliches and misinformation. It's commonly said, for instance, that the country is destitute and hovering on the verge of famine – but as Al-Jazeera point out, North Korea actually enjoyed a harvest good enough to feed the country's entire population.
Earlier this year, Irish satire site Waterford Whispers News hoaxed media outlets everywhere with a story about North Korea media reports that the country was the first in the world to send an astronaut to the sun. The 17-year-old spaceman, it reported, even "collected sun spot samples to bring back to his supreme leader as a present". The story got over a million hits on their site and fooled news outlets in Canada and Irish newspaper the Sunday World.
Then there was that widely-reported tale that Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Song Taek, was "stripped naked, thrown in a cage and mauled by 120 hunting dogs that had been starved for five days". That turned out to be untrue too, and newspapers like the New York Daily were forced to eat their words, although they did try to weasel out of it by stating "experts say North Korea's human rights track record is so tarnished that the story that the story was completely plausible". Turns out that the uncle was indeed executed, just not in a similar fashion to Hannibal's Mason Verger.
But it's not just North Korean hoaxes that we're duped by. We'll believe anything to do with "those folk that live over there" (read: Asia). In January, everyone from the Independent to Time reported that smog in Beijing was so bad that the city's light-starved population were resorting to huge public TV screens to watch a virtual sunrise and sunset.
Daily Mail reported on how the smog was so insufferable in Beijing that "the city's natural light-starved masses have begun flocking to huge digital commercial television screens across the city to observe virtual sunrises." Three days later, it was revealed that the TVs were actually part of a tourism campaign that was screened all year round – no matter how bad the pollution was.
We're desperately eager to believe these stories, but isn't there something dangerous (and patronising, to boot) about these gross caricatures of North Korea and China? It's foolhardy to assume that the inhabitants of these countries would believe so easily that they've landed an astronaut on the sun, or that Beijing residents go to look at a fake sun each morning.
China and North Korea are of course different countries, with wildly different governments and histories – but we're happy to believe anything outlandish about either. We love "LOL news from Asia", because of how little we understand the region. And it's easier to superficially consider billions of weird people in weird countries doing weird things, rather than know anything more about them.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot
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