North Korea's new leader seems to have a thing for "global trends" and Disney. Does that presage Pyongyang's opening to the West?
- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others., Adam CathcartAdam Cathcart is assistant professor of Chinese history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and editor of SinoNK.com.
On July 9, North Korean state television aired a segment of photographs featuring Disney characters clowning around on stage, with an ebullient President Kim Jong Un clapping in the audience. In a country known for its antipathy towards the United States, it shocked observers of North Korea that state TV chose to air some of the most recognizable American icons. More striking than the unauthorized use of Mickey Mouse, however, are the women featured in the performance. One violinist wears a black cocktail dress that goes above her knees; others sing in strapless dresses. In 2009, South Korean media released a DVD meant for internal North Korean Party consumption showing scantily clad North Korean dancers, but it’s almost unheard of for women in Pyongyang to show their shoulders publicly, outside of a gymnastics outfit. Even more shockingly for a country so proud of its individuality, the photos of the women in front of Disney characters present a scene that could be any country in East Asia.
Since he took power in December after the death of his father Kim Jong Il, the 28 or 29 year-old Kim Jong Un appears to be more concerned with how his country is perceived globally — or at least with "global trends." In an article published in early July, South Korean news agency Yonhap cited four separate incidents where Kim urged his people towards global awareness, ranging from a message to government officials ("accept global development trends and advanced technologies in land management and environment protection") to a speech in a sock factory ("develop colors, designs, and emblems in tandem with global trends.") The website The Daily NK contrasted Kim Jong Il’s belief in self-reliance with a statement Kim Jong Un made urging people to use the Internet, of all things, to "see many materials on global trends."
Besides being one of the world’s most conservative societies, North Korea is also the most opaque; it’s difficult to guess what Kim and North Korea’s ruling elite intend to present to the world. But it appears that the PR blitz is in part a return to the leadership ethos of Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, who ruled North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994. Kim Il Sung was a politician of the Fidel Castro mold: kissing babies, giving long speeches, and sitting down for dozens — if not hundreds — of interviews with foreign journalists. By contrast, North Koreans probably heard Kim Jong Il speak in public only once: In 1992, he shouted the words "Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People’s Army!" His son, on the other hand, has already given a confident 20 minute speech on April 15, the 100th anniversary of his grandfather’s birth.
Kim Jong Un derives much of his legitimacy from the similarities to his grandfather. North Korean analysts widely believe that Kim Il Sung is far more beloved than his son, whose rule coincided with a disastrous famine that killed an estimated 10 percent of North Korea’s population. Kim Jong Un’s appearance at the concert last week was followed by visits to traditional sites associated with his grandfather, like Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum, which Kim Jong Il rarely visited. A South Korean intelligence official told the New York Times in December that Kim Jong Un "was such a spitting image of his grandfather that when he first appeared on TV, many North Koreans broke into tears, hailing him as the second coming of Kim Il Sung," a comparison North Korean media has regularly made.
The youthful, bouncy Kim, who’s more comfortable in his skin than his father (and has opted out of wearing his father’s beloved jumpsuit), seems a more active advocate of his country understanding the outside world. One common if unheeded slogan from Kim Jong Il’s era — "Look out over the world while keeping your feet firmly planted on your own land" — seems to have been accelerated by the advent of the new leadership.
While it may not look slick or professional to eyes of international viewers used to multi-million dollar cable spectaculars, some North Korea watchers see an improvement in the quality of the propaganda. "It looks like the way they’re presenting themselves is based on some professional [international] advice," said Hazel Smith, a professor at Cranfield University in Britain who researches North Korea. She said that some of the recent imagery, pictures, and speeches seem more internationally aware. "Plenty of other countries have done this, but I never thought North Korea would."
Of course, none of this means that North Korea will liberalize, abandon its nuclear weapons, or rejoin the international community. "Onwards Toward the Final Victory," a 2:41 minute theme song for Kim Jong Un, released last week on state radio and television, mentions the "undefeated army … winning a hundred battles," has a Red Army-style chorus, and, like his debut film, features images of torpedoes being shot into the water. So let’s not expect the Disney spirit of love and friendship to take over just yet.
"Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh have been visible in Pyongyang on shop windows and children’s backpacks for years now," B.R. Myers, an expert on propaganda in North Korea, wrote in an email. "None of this is to deny that the influx of foreign culture is having an effect on North Korean tastes and fashions. But it is not the sign of any political change at the top of the state."