Not all eyes were on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in as they sat before a crowd of 150,000 at the May Day Stadium during Moon’s inaugural visit to the North. Eagle-eyed spectators and media managed to spot Samsung Group head Lee Jae-yong getting ready to dab his lips with what was presumably lip balm on his little finger – a seemingly innocuous action that is connected with Lee’s downfall in recent years.

During his high profile trial in 2016, the 50-year-old vice-chairman of South Korea’s largest and arguably most powerful chaebol, or conglomerate, was often seen applying layers of Softlips, his favourite brand of lip balm, in the courtroom. The Samsung leader was questioned and later jailed for his role in former South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s corruption scandal.

While it was the charges of bribery that initially caught the public’s attention, his affinity for Softlips became a major topic of discussion, as the public vied to purchase the same “chaebol lip balm” touted by online retailers and importers. Softlips, an American product that retails for around US$2, saw a huge surge in popularity, according to The Korea Herald.

The Korean public like to pay close attention to anything chaebol leaders do in public, said Seoul-based fashion photographer and media consultant Justin Shin. “It’s like France [in the 1600s] – when the king created a new trend, people would try it out to experience the same thing. Koreans cannot afford to have the same lifestyle as these chaebol heads, but they can definitely try out some of the smaller things [like lip balm].”

In highly image-conscious and status-oriented South Korea, men and women buy into the notion of “self-care” – albeit in varying degrees. With the rise of a host of male K-pop groups such as BTS and iKon, as well as models and actors who are not only immaculately groomed but also often the spokesmodels for cosmetics and skincare products, the market for men’s grooming is on the rise.

The term “groo-dopter” – a portmanteau of the words “grooming” and “early adopter” – has been trending over the past year, according to a Korea Herald report. South Korean health and beauty store Olive Young – which is owned by CJ Group, a former subsidiary of Samsung – announced in March that sales for men’s lip balm had increased by 45 per cent year on year.

Male customers’ needs for dry care and moisturising lip products have increased, while they increasingly look for natural and red-tinted lip products, Olive Young said in a statement.

“From ads for gym shoes, to golf gear, they show men all shiny in make-up. But it’s not decorative or in your face,” said Michael Hurt, a visual sociologist and lecturer at the University of Seoul.

It definitely normalised the idea that all men need to put in similar self-grooming efforts to women, he added – even when it comes to chaebol leaders.

“When things are trending in Korea, everyone has to do it,” said media consultant Shin. “My male friend uses a special facial mist, a matt cover blemish cream … Lee Jae-yong is probably doing it too.”