Every morning in North Korea, hidden speakers spout anti-American propaganda for anyone within earshot. In school yards, children throw stones at effigies of American soldiers. A popular curse between enemies is: “I will kill you like an American imperialist.”
All of which makes last weekend’s huge stage show thrown by North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-Un for himself, and later televised, both baffling and surprising.
Kim Jong-Un reportedly has a collection of $200 Nike shoes and has taken photos with players like former Chicago Bulls guard Toni Kukoc and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant.
The extravaganza, believed to be the first performance of its kind, included Western icons like Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. Still photos shown on state TV on Saturday revealed other notable Disney characters—such as Snow White, Dumbo, and Beauty and the Beast—projected onto a huge backdrop.
The presentation is all part of newly anointed leader Kim Jong-Un’s “grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year,” explained the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Except for the hermit kingdom’s long and complicated antipathy toward the West, this exaltation of beloved American cartoon characters might be viewed as North Korea diluting its U.S. vitriol.
Recently deceased ruler Kim Jong-Il famously loved Western movies, having a personal collection of more than 20,000 films. The only movies he approved for public screening were Sound of Music, Titanic and Home Alone—all American films—and his personal favorites included Rambo and Friday the 13th.
The dictator’s jingoistic disconnect didn’t end there. In an attempt to curb mass starvation with side-sticking American staples, Kim Jong Il announced in 2000 that he had invented “double bread with meat,” a delicacy bearing more than a passing resemblance to a hamburger. And in 2009, he introduced pizza to the country.
Even more ironic? Toilets and sinks in Pyongyang hotels are made by American Standard. (Which are also, apparently, featured in the Pyongyang airport.)
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Kim Jong-Un, who is believed to be in his late twenties, seems to share his father’s love/hate relationship with the West. An avid fan of the NBA, Kim Jong-Un reportedly has a collection of $200 Nike shoes and has taken photos with players like former Chicago Bulls guard Toni Kukoc and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant. (The new supreme leader also seems to share his father’s policy of bait and switch when it comes to nuclear arms.)
It’s hard to say—given rampant state secrecy and disinformation campaigns—whether change is on the North Korean horizon or whether the presence of Minnie and Winnie is simply another mixed message. But there are some encouraging signs.
Just six months into his reign, Kim Jong-Un has rocked the country with a very public affair with a married pop star. His seemingly liberal attitude may embolden his subjects to follow suit. As Robert McNeil of the Belfast Telegraph wrote last week, Pyongyang women are now wearing trousers, and children are finally being allowed to go to the zoo, an indication of a shift, however slight, in ideology.
“Korea watchers reckon that, by 2060, the country might have caught up with the late 19th century,” McNeil writes.
With some help from the Magic Kingdom, maybe that advance could come even sooner.
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Oliver Lee has been covering social justice and other issues for TakePart since 2009. Originally from Baltimore, he lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn. Email Oliver | @oliverung