The international media reacted with surprise over the weekend, as footage emerged of much-loved animated icons Mickey Mouse, Winnie-the-Pooh, Tigger and others dancing onstage for Kim Jong Eun and assorted regime heavyweights during a concert on the 6th by a newly created ensemble called the Moran Hill Orchestra.
Still photos from state television revealed the costumed characters, which were dancing and singing alongside projections of Disney favorites including ‘Dumbo’, ‘Snow White’, and ‘Beauty and the Beast’.
The surprise that this engendered was based on the fact that no Western popular culture icons would previously have been welcome for public display in North Korea, a country which, famously, also does not have a formal presence from the likes of Coca-Cola or McDonalds.
However, that surprise is in some senses misplaced, for as the Associated Press article that first revealed the news also pointed out, such characters have been appearing on things like backpacks and socks in North Korea for some years.
Take for example the 2009 documentary film, “Goodbye Pyongyang,” which depicts daily life in Pyongyang during the mid-2000s through the eyes of Sun Hwa, the neice of Zainichi-Korean film director Yang Young Hee. At one point, Yang points to Sun Hwa’s socks, and asks, “The Mickey Mouse on your socks; it’s an American character. Won’t they get confiscated?” However, Sun Hwa whispers in response, “Nobody knows this is an American character.”
That was then, however, and this is now. Rather than not knowing, the emphasis seems now to be on not caring. As one visitor to Pyongyang in April told Daily NK shortly after his visit, “Kids walking around are wearing a lot more Disney and other animation characters on their clothing than they used to. I saw a number of them, memorably among the kids who passed by while I was hanging around under the Arch of Triumph on April 14th listening to a group of women practicing their Day of the Sun routine.”
Reflecting on the same Sun Hwa comment from ‘Goodbye Pyongyang’, the anonymous visitor went on, “She used to be able to get away with wearing Mickey Mouse because her North Korean teachers didn’t know where Mickey Mouse was from. Well, now she can wear Mickey Mouse because everyone else is also wearing Mickey Mouse.”
In essence, then, what the sight of Western cultural icons on North Korean national television really represents is official acquiescence to a bottom-up transformation that has already occurred.
In other words, it is just another example of the North Korean authorities playing catch up with North Korean society. Rather than the new Kim Jong Eun regime bringing Western culture to the people, it is a case of Western culture irrevocably infiltrating Pyongyang and being embraced, belatedly, by the regime.
In this respect, it seems reminiscent of the bottom-up marketization started by the ordinary North Korean people in the mid-1990s because it represented the only available alternative to starvation. Only with the July economic reform measures of 2002 can it be said that the regime of Kim Jong Il began, belatedly and with a good deal of reticence, to accept the far-reaching changes that the creation of a fledgling market economy had begun to bring about in society, very much without its prior permission.
As a postscript, however, clearly North Korea’s embrace of Western culture has yet to include embracing respect for copyright norms. For as the most perfunctory of glances at the dubiously attired onstage characters would have been enough to confirm, the Walt Disney Company had no connection to the performance.
According to Disney Chief Spokesperson Zenia Mucha, “it was not licensed or authorized by The Walt Disney Company.”