Kim Jong Un beauty masks are pulled off shelves in South Korea

More than 25,000 of these facial masks, which feature the North Korean leader's face and blocky hairline, have been sold online and in stores since June.
More than 25,000 of these facial masks, which feature the North Korean leader's face and blocky hairline, have been sold online and in stores since June.PHOTO: TWITTER / @SAMKIMASIA

SEOUL (NYTIMES) - South Korea is known for its robust beauty industry, with the country's focus on personal appearance so intense that it recently drew a backlash.

But now, the industry faces unwelcome attention of a different sort: A company's decision to market Kim Jong Un beauty masks - complete with "nuclear bomb" packaging that promises to moisturise and whiten the face - has led to such an uproar that the product has been pulled from some store shelves.

More than 25,000 of these facial masks, which feature the North Korean leader's face and blocky hairline, have been sold online and in stores since June, according to 5149, the South Korean cosmetics and fashion company that produced them.

The company's chief executive, Ms Kwak Hyeon-ju, said she wanted the mask packs to celebrate what she called the "once in a lifetime" inter-Korean summits earlier this year.

But as word of the unconventional product spread, so did the criticism, leading one chain store, Pierrot Shopping, to remove the product from shelves following critical coverage in a major South Korean newspaper.

Some say that such mockery of Mr Kim only softens the image of North Korea, effectively creating propaganda for the regime.

"The fact that the worst dictator in the world - who violates human rights of its residents - is portrayed as someone who can be part of making world peace shows that South Korean society has lost the ability to filter through and control the situation," said Professor Kang Dong-wan, a professor of North Korean culture and politics at Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea.

Many consumers have posed playfully with the masks stuck to their faces and posted the images on social media.

Others see it as the normalisation of an oppressive dictator, and a trivialisation of the nuclear threat that North Korea poses.

 
 

The packaging of the "unification nuclear bomb packs" contains the promise to moisturise, whiten or lift the user's face.

A promotional video on the company's Instagram account touts the product as a "nuclear bomb erupting on your face".

"Should we now go over the border with a whitened face?" a caption on the product's packaging reads, in a font commonly used in North Korean propaganda.

Ms Kwak said her product merely celebrated the jubilation that greeted Mr Kim's April meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the Demilitarised Zone between the two countries.

"I don't know what Kim Jong Un means in North Korea or what he represents politically, but the whole country of South Korea was happy," she said, referring to the moment when the North Korean leader stepped across the heavily armed border hand in hand with Mr Moon.

"I wanted to pat Kim Jong Un's shoulder for coming," she said.

Mr Park Sang-hak, chairman of the human rights group Fighters for a Free North Korea, said the popularity of the masks showed how much South Koreans were falling for North Korean propaganda following the Kim-Moon meetings and the North's recent peace overtures.

"Kim Jong Un's nuclear ambitions get justified and even beautified by the words 'nuclear bomb mask pack,'" he said.

But such a product would be unthinkable in North Korea. Though the faces of North Korean leaders are widely worn on residents' lapels, depictions that are less than reverent can lead to severe punishment.

In South Korea, favourable depictions of North Korea are actually illegal under a 1948 law that is now rarely enforced.

A youth fan club called "Welcome Committee for a Great Man" is not being blocked by the South Korean government from soliciting donations on the street to welcome Mr Kim during his potential visit to Seoul this month.