The Korean Peninsula is no stranger to the scourge of sartorial uniformity. North Korea, of course, is well known for having an approved list of hairstyles for both men and women, which for some odd reason are best suited for portly men stuck in a time-warp. Capitalist Korea to the south, though, is facing a more complicated problem. Its Ministry for Gender Equality and Family is fighting a new source of uniformity, usually outside the pale of democratic governments — popstars. Are Korean pop (K-pop) stars, the ministry asked earlier this month, “all twins”? There is already a backlash to the perceived attempts at censorship with the government’s attempt to impose “guidelines” to limit the exposure of K-pop celebrities on television and make viewing more diverse.
Slim, slick and dressed almost to a template, K-pop icons wield immense influence in South Korean society. In fact, K-pop music and fashion is a much-desired cultural commodity in many parts of Asia and beyond. But the effects of the stars’ popularity are not all positive. A very particular aesthetic is held up as a standard and according to a Gallup survey, one in three women between the age of 19 and 29 in the country have had plastic surgery to conform. Plastic surgery is even glorified through reality shows featuring K-pop celebrities, as though it were nothing more than a passing fad, a pair of shoes that can be discarded next season.
The government of South Korea, though, may not be taking the best approach by trying to wiggle its way into what ought to constitute popular culture. Even its far more totalitarian neighbour to the north would likely think twice before enforcing variety, a far more onerous task than ensuring uniformity. The best approach is likely to let the era of K-pop run its course. The shallowness of customer loyalty is likely a better bet than diversity by diktat.