Even for a country famous for producing strange visuals these were especially odd: Disney characters dancing in front of a North Korean orchestra during a televised command performance for the country's young leader Kim Jong-un. The images were especially jarring since much of the mythos of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is built around a steadfast resistance to the corrupting influences of capitalism and America. Yet here were the cartoon embodiments of American capitalism - as expressed though the ubiquitous Walt Disney Corporation: Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and one of Snow White's Dwarfs - dancing on a North Korean stage. This same performance also featured a rendition of “Gonna Fly Now”, the theme from the movie Rocky, which was accompanied by a montage of scenes from the movie projected behind the musicians as they stumbled through what was clearly unfamiliar music to them.
So what's going on here?
Trying to divine the intentions of the North Korea leadership though snippets of state-run media footage has become the 21st century version of Kremlinology. North Korea watchers are offering up a slew of potential explanations, ranging from the performance being a coded message of new openness to the West, to an attempt at lightening the mood for the North Korean populace, to this performance being just an expression of Kim Jong-un's odd personality.
There is perhaps some validity to the notion that the sudden appearance of Disney characters and Rocky on North Korean television was the start of a new openness to Western/Capitalist/American influences. Looking at the example set by other societies formerly adversarial to the West - the Soviet Union and “Red” China spring to mind – acceptance of iconic “all-American” brands like Pepsi in the Soviet Union and Kentucky Fried Chicken in China, preceded official changes in policy towards America/the West. Changing a mindset indoctrinated into a people from a young age, it seems, is easier if that road has already been softened by exposure to the adversary's popular culture. And given that the power structure around Kim Jong-un, who took over suddenly upon the unexpected death of his father, is still widely thought to be in flux, featuring these bits of American pop culture may have been seen as a “safe” way of publicly signaling a new openness to the West.
The performance also could have been a tacit admission by North Korean officials that in the 21st century we are all swimming in a perpetual sea of data, and that despite their best efforts, Western pop culture is seeping into the Hermit Kingdom. Perhaps the performance then is a way for the North Korean state to try to allow these pop culture influences into society on their own terms. Rocky, in particular, is a bit of Western pop culture ripe for co-opting. Rocky Balboa is a down-at-the-heels boxer who is told he'll never amount to anything. Yet Rocky comes to believe in himself and through hard-work and perseverance, Rocky gets a match against the heavyweight champion. Rocky therefore is the embodiment of the North Korean national philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance. Of course things become more problematic for North Korea later in the Rocky canon, when Rocky defeats Ivan Drago, who is literally the physical embodiment of the State, in Rocky IV...
There's also the possibility that the inclusion of the Disney characters may have been a far more personal decision made by Kim Jong-un. Perhaps it was simply a very public dig at his eldest brother Kim Jong-nam, who likely should have been the successor to Kim Jong-il. But Kim Jong-nam's rise to power came to a crashing halt when the eldest Kim son was arrested attempting to enter Japan on a forged passport in 2001. At the time, Kim Jong-nam said that he simply wanted to visit Disneyland Tokyo. In addition to exposing a North Korean passport-forging ring, the incident proved to be an incredibly personal embarrassment to Kim Jong-nam, who subsequently fled North Korea and earlier this year was reported to be living in exile, under Chinese protection, in Macao. To take this theory a step further, including the Disney characters in the performance may have been a sort of preemptive strike by Kim Jong-un, a very public way of reminding North Koreans, those within leadership circles at least who would have been privy to the details of Kim Jong-nam's ill-fated Tokyo trip, about the global embarrassment his eldest brother brought down upon North Korea. In this way Kim Jong-un is undermining the legitimacy of his eldest brother, who has been the subject of some speculation as a possible replacement leader for Kim Jong-un should the younger Kim not be able to hold the reins of the North Korean state.
Or finally, the Disney/Rocky extravaganza may have just been Kim Jong-un playing an elaborate joke – the distribution of absurdist images to drive North Korea watchers and amateur Kimologists crazy pondering the myriad of their potential meanings. If nothing else, the performance shows that dealing with the new Kim regime in the future is going to be a fascinating and challenging experience.
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