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Warning: This fad may kill you

Korean trends tagged with deadly warnings in Thailand.

Korean model in traditional dress
South Korean fashion has come a long way. Now, it's all glitz and leggings. In Thailand, the "Korean Wave" has become so popular authorities are worried it will compromise Thai culture. Here, a Korean model poses at a fashion show on Sept. 29, 2006 in Goyang, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — In the mascaraed eyes of Thai teenyboppers, South Korea is ground zero of hip. More than Lady Gaga, more than any local act, Bangkok kids aspire to the saccharine perfection of Korean pop.

Thai authorities, however, have proven less welcoming of the “K-Pop” phenomenon. With each new Korean fashion craze comes official warnings that the new fad may blind, disfigure or even kill.

The Seoul-born craze for “Big Eye” contacts can cause blindness and, if swapped among friends, AIDS, according to Thailand’s health ministry. Officials warn that prickly glue-on eyelashes, popular among Korean divas, can put your eye out. Yet another public service announcement warns against imitating Korean looks through surgery or toxic whitening creams.

The latest advisory blames trendy black hosiery — another fashion import from Seoul — for a summer rash of dengue fever in women aged 10 to 24. The mosquitoes are drawn to the leggings’ dark hues, said Deputy Health Minister Pansiri Kulanartsiri.

“It’s upsetting the way people dress, especially teenage groups, all through the cities and countryside,” Pansiri said. “The popular fashion is leggings and sexy pants. It’s this trendy fashion hit from Korea.”

All of these trends are lumped under what sociologists call the “Korean Wave.” (The press has called it “Kim Chic.”) Roughly 10 years ago, the South Korean government began subsidizing the export of slick soap operas and pop groups for pan-Asian consumption.

The investment paid off. Teens across Asia are now addicted to Korean pop culture: soaps, boy bands and films. The wave has steadily grown in China, Japan and all of Southeast Asia, where drab state-controlled media often struggle to compete.

Korea has essentially provided a template for modern Asian glamour. Its stars are glossy lipped and porcelain smooth. K-Pop singers are assembled into boy or girl groups in which airbrushed aesthetics are arguably more important than their synthesized music. The genre’s calling card is flawless, surgically perfect cuteness.

What the Bangkok press calls “Korean Fever” exploded in Thailand around 2006. Since then, Korean soap operas have aired in Thailand roughly 100 minutes per day, according to the Korea-Thailand Communication Center. In the last 10 years, the craze has more than doubled the number of Thai visitors to Korea to nearly 200,000.

Some Thai authorities, however, have cast Korean Fever as an overtly sexual, superficial threat to Thai culture.

“We shouldn’t have the intention to imitate and go crazy for another culture until we’ve forgotten our own,” said Teera Salakpet, former head of Thailand’s culture ministry, in a speech last year. “We need to instill the beauty of Thai culture in our youth.”