This week, North Korean state television released an hour and forty minutes of footage from a July 6 concert attended by young despot Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, in December. The remarkable video (see a clip below) includes Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh dancing on stage, clips from Rocky IV featuring Rocky Balboa and his Soviet nemesis Ivan Drago, and female musicians in skimpy dresses and stilettos playing "It's a Small World" and the go-get-'em theme music from Rocky. Kim was accompanied by a mysterious woman, who has been alternately identified as his sister, his lover, and a former pop star whose hits include "Excellent Horse-like Lady." Watchers of the Hermit Kingdom say it's highly unusual for a North Korean leader to openly celebrate American cultural icons, let alone broadcast the event on state television, where the norm is mind-numbing, ultra-patriotic fare. Yet, given his government's penchant for control, Kim undoubtedly approved the concert, which has many guessing at his motives. Here, four theories why Kim has embraced Hollywood:
1. He's distancing himself from his father
Kim Jong Il, he of the famous jumpsuit and Jackie O sunglasses, was known for a "dour rule" that "took North Korea deeper into isolation, abject poverty, and large-scale political repression," say David Chance and Ju-min Park at Reuters. Reportedly, he spoke publicly to his people only once, at a military parade in 1992, say Isaac Stone Fish and Adam Cathcart at Foreign Policy, shouting the words "Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People's Army!" Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, smiles strategically, is careful to exude energy, and interacts more with his subjects — a possible attempt to channel his grandfather, the far more popular Kim Il Sung, who was known for "kissing babies" and "giving long speeches," say Fish and Cathcart.
2. He's embarking on true reform
The young Kim has shown a degree of transparency that "would have been unthinkable" under his father, says William Pesek at Bloomberg. When a highly publicized missile launch failed in April, North Korea surprised the world by acknowledging the embarrassment, instead of reflexively reverting to denial. The Disney-inspired concert could be part of a larger campaign to reform the Stalinist state and open it up to the world. After all, if "Kim saw America as the Great Satan, as his father did, would he be showcasing the most blatant symbol of Americana in front of the cameras?" It might seem like a curious move, but "big changes start with small gestures."
3. He's using propaganda to hold on to power
"Let's not expect the Disney spirit of love and friendship to take over just yet," say Fish and Cathcart. "None of this means that North Korea will liberalize, abandon its nuclear weapons, or rejoin the international community." For now, Kim is resorting to purely cosmetic changes and the propaganda strategy of "manipulating public opinion through art," says Mok Yong Jae at DailyNK. Kim and North Korea's military still see true reform as being "dangerous for regime security."
4. He's catching up with the times
And he knows he has to update the propaganda itself. Even North Korea's repressive tactics can't stop the flow of digital information across the country's borders, says Andreas Lorenz at Der Spiegel. While most North Koreans have no internet access, they have been increasingly exposed to "DVDs, CDs, videos, and USB sticks about life abroad." The information is being smuggled across North Korea's porous border with China, a home of pirated entertainment, making the movie Titanic, for example, a favorite among North Koreans. Since the country "can no longer be kept completely insulated from outside information, the country's leaders have changed their propaganda tactics" to at least acknowledge figures many are already familiar with.
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