Mickey and Minnie share a touching moment... on stage in Pyongyang on Monday. Photo: Reuters from Korean Central News Agency.
It's official. American cultural imperialism really has reached everywhere on the surface of the planet.
Even in deeply isolated North Korea, Mickey Mouse has a following -- and one of his fans is apparently the country's young dictator Kim Jong-un.
In a nationally televised entertainment song and dance variety show, the young leader was shown sitting in front of a modern theater stage complete with colorful lighting and picture displays. On stage were performers dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, a green dragon, and what looked to be an unnaturally jubilant Grumpy from the Seven Dwarves.
It was unmistakable evidence that the new leader of the North was taking measures to open up the country to more modern influences and foreign culture.
The state-owned Korean Central News Agency noted that the young Kim has a grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year.
Singers and dancers on stage -- images and video show an all-female cast -- wore elegant dresses, sometimes revealing miniskirts, while they played violins, electric guitars, and a grand piano.
Monday's televised concert came complete with a light-show and professional violin players. Photo from Reuters.
The Disney characters were only part of a larger show that also included patriotic folk songs sung by entertainers wearing long flowing traditional-style dresses. The entire event was likely used as a propaganda piece for the country.
But the event also had an uncomfortable and oddly North Korean flair to it. The audience was nearly entirely composed of stern-faced military officers. They clapped in unison to a show that seemed oddly out of place, like some Frankenstein-esque combination of soulless totalitarian imagery with classic (and also soulless, some may say) Americana.
But in the brave new world of the 21st century, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
The identity of an unidentified young woman sitting next to Kim during the show also grabbed the attention of media organizations outside North Korea and made front-page headlines in South Korea, China, and the U.S.
Kim Jong-un, with the mystery woman to his right. Audience members and military personnel applaud behind them. Photo from Reuters.
Was she a spouse, a sister, a cultural adviser, just a friend? No one knew, and everyone wanted to guess. Like Hollywood-style guesses on celebrity romances, the international media jumped on the idea that the twentysomething dictator of a nation of 23 million (only a handful of people on the planet know his real age) has already found a love interest, a little more than half a year into his rule.
Other South Korean experts speculated that she may instead be a relative, perhaps a younger sister named Kim Yo-jong. The precedent is not unknown: after all, Kim Jong-un's father, the late Kim Jong-il, frequently appeared in public with aunt Kim Kyong-hui who, with her husband Jang Song-thaek, is considered a major political heavyweight in North Korea.
Foreign analysts have speculated in the past that Kim Jong-un could have a liberalizing influence on North Korea, largely due to his own experiences abroad studying in Switzerland. However, whether Kim will really change the country's abrasive foreign policy and national strategies is largely unknown. In April, he went ahead with a satellite launch widely opposed by South Korea, Japan, and the U.S., and also publicly condemned (though in a limited fashion) by Russia and China.
(But If a Swiss education is any indication of his predispositions, we shouldn't forget that the Alpine nation deeply prides itself on self-reliance -- also praised in North Korea's juche political dogma -- and, while neutral, is also one of the most heavily militarized places on the planet in per-capita terms.)
The most pressing question on everyone's mind, though, is how Disney characters -- an prominent American symbol -- could even be approved for such a public event in a country so at odds with the U.S.?
Children's entertainment has come a long way in North Korea. The Fly Burning Troopers or Bultaborin Separi Budae was a black and white cartoon showing valiant soldiers fighting against American biological warfare -- blamed as the real cause of famines and food shortages in the country. Photo taken from Youtube.
A cartoon about what happens when you don't learn math in North Korea -- an American invasion. The short children's film Pencil Bombs or Yeonpilpotan shows evil U.S. warships being blown up by North Korea missiles. Photo taken from Youtube.
In fact, Disney's cartoons have made their way into North Korea gradually over the past years as school supplies and children's wear (almost certainly knockoffs) from China entered the country. It is unknown however, whether those images are associated by North Koreans directly with the U.S., or simply viewed as anonymous but adorable cartoons.
Either way, it appears proof of an amazing phenomenon in global affairs and contemporary culture: the seductive power and dominance of American culture, but disseminated across the world by Chinese manufacturing.
No better evidence, really, of how Chimerica is remaking the world.
One thing remains the same, though: North Korea, long known as a counterfeiter of dollars and flouter of international law, still isn't playing by the rules, Mickey Mouse or not. Disney said that the Pyongyang regime did not pay the requisite royalties to use the likeness of the entertainment company's artistic creations.