SEOUL -- North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il's surprise summit in China took the top off of at least one of the biggest secrets of the Pyongyang government: The Dear Leader is losing his famed big hair.
The familiar profile of Kim, 62, has long been characterized by his luxuriously piled bouffant. But during his trip to Beijing two weeks ago, Kim turned his back to rolling news 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 got past Chinese censors seemed 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 other totalitarian leader, a collapsing coiffure might raise nary an eyebrow. Who 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 with not only an iron fist but also dynamic hair.
''He may be the Dear Leader, but he is not such a tall man," said Nam Sung Wook, professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul. ''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."
''You know," Nam added, putting his hand on his head and gesturing outward in a big puffing motion during an interview at a Seoul cafe, ''he perms it."
''You must know those curls are not natural," he said. ''He's a Korean; he has straight hair like most all of us. If he didn't perm it, that hair would be all flat over his forehead."
Kim's big-hair bang began in the 1980s as the Dear Leader was being groomed for the throne by his father, Kim Il Sung, who remains North Korea's official president even though he died in 1994.
Shin Ju Hyun, coauthor of the book ''Funny Kim Jong Il," said his research showed that traditional North Korean society initially was shocked by ''the Kim-do," which Kim typically accessorizes with chunky heels and a jumpsuit-like ensemble inspired by Chairman Mao.
Kim, who is 5 feet tall, works the hair for at least 2 extra inches. The platform shoes are typically good for 3 more.
Shin and others say the high hair is meant to give Kim the larger-than-life, movie-star quality befitting a leader who North Koreans are taught was born on a mountaintop, his arrival from the heavens heralded by a double rainbow.
''Kim Jong Il wanted to prove that his rule would be more fresh and Westernized than that of his father with that new hairstyle," Shin said.
Living up to the more than 1,000 lofty titles bestowed on Kim by his subjects, including ''Guardian of Our Planet," has taken a lot of hair spray over the years. So not surprisingly, those rare shots of Kim's thinning locks in China landed in newspapers and television stations across Asia, especially in South Korea and Japan, where Kim's hair has become an object of obsession in certain circles. Kim once lobbed a test missile over Japan in 1998. Nevertheless, he has become an underground fashion icon in Tokyo's teenage subculture.
Various websites in Japan and around the world celebrate Kim's hair. One, titled ''Kim Jong Il's Fan Club," depicts 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.