Kim Jong-un's weekend concert featuring Mickey Mouse and a cast of quintessentially American characters was more revealing than you'd think. Forget Disney. What should have raised a few eyebrows was the significant departure from the conservative dress usually worn by North Korean state performers, and approved under the leader's pragmatic eye for change. By JAMES PEARSON
The world's media buzzed with rumour over the weekend as the Associated Press broke the news that the stage of Pyongyang's latest musical gala had been dominated by North Koreans dressed up as famous Disney characters. According to the videos and images released by North Korea's official YouTube channel Uriminzokkiri, not only were Mickey Mouse and friends a central part, the entire performance was accompanied by various clips from Disney classics via a large TV screen in the background.
While headlines focused on the more sensational aspect of quintessentially American Mickey Mouse in what many see as a deeply anti-American state, many observers failed to pick up on an even more significant change the original article revealed: the short skirts, high heels and shoulder-revealing dresses worn by the all-female Moranbong Band at the centre of the performance.
Seasoned Pyongyang-watchers will know that Disney characters are not a rare occurrence in North Korea. From school children's backpacks to washing-up bowls in state-run markets, the smiley face of Mickey Mouse is perhaps a little more omnipresent than we think. And the use of Disney film clips should also come as no shock: thousands of North Korean citizens use small, easily-concealed USB sticks to transfer foreign films and e-books between each other, creating one of the few genuinely social networks of its kind. Mickey Mouse, Snow White and a few other classics are not necessarily state-approved material, but they are fairly well-known titles among many North Koreans.
Another often forgotten but nevertheless important point to note in the ongoing relationship is the involvement of North Korean workers in creating Disney classics The Lion King and Pocahontas, both of which were reportedly outsourced for animation to graduates of the Pyongyang College of Arts in a process set up by Korean-American producer Nelson Shin (the same man responsible for outsourcing animation for The Simpsons to South Korea in the 1980s). The existence of Disney characters in North Korean popular culture is therefore not a surprise.
What should have raised a few eyebrows was the significant departure from the more traditional and conservative dress usually worn by North Korean state performers. Instead of chima-jeogori (the traditional Korean outfit for women, known for its bright colours and simple design), the girls of the Moranbong Band wore short, black, strapless dresses and adopted more modern hairstyles than the typically 1950s-style quiffs and plaits of which the state normally approves. For the first time, legs, shoulders and arms were exposed in a spectacle that would have perhaps looked more at home on state television in the South than the North.
Thanks largely to ethnic-Korean traders who frequently pass between the more porous border between Korea and north-eastern China, South Korean trends have often trickled across to urbanites in the North. For example, with the current boom in mobile-phone handsets, some of the 1 million gradually more tech-savvy North Korean subscribers are now resorting to South Korean equivalents of “LOL” and popular emoticons in their text messages.
However, this kind of imported slang normally remains at a colloquial level and is unlikely to be recognised by the state itself, especially when Pyongyang has worked hard in recent years to keep its identity distinct and impervious to outside influence.
But if we take into account the fact that Kim Jong-un was said to have personally organised the creation of The Moranbong Band, this tolerance of a contemporary and revealing image in the public domain might represent a more pragmatic and liberalised view towards the arts under Kim's new leadership. Keen to show that North Korea is a “strong and prosperous nation”, perhaps the youthful face of the new regime is more in touch with how it is perceived from the outside – and looking to improve those perceptions.
In the 1980s, North Korean fashion was far more relaxed than it was under Kim Jong-il in the 1990s. Could this be another in a long line of attempts by the new government to model Kim Jong-un's leadership on that of his grandfather? If his clothes, hairstyle and his coached public-speaking voice are anything to go by, such a suggestion might not be as bizarre as it appears.
However, until things change and access to information becomes easier, we'll probably never know. Working with North Korea is notoriously difficult, and most of what we know, or what we think we know, is often based on second-hand sources or educated guesses. Nevertheless, we should at least have an idea about what to look for when evidence of tiny changes emerge. In this case, the clothes worn by Kim's favourite new band were far more revealing than the old news that Mickey Mouse is big in Pyongyang. DM
Credit: This edited article is used courtesy of Asia Times Online, which retains copyright.
Photo: Members of the newly formed Moranbong band perform during a demonstration performance in Pyongyang in this undated picture released by the North's KCNA July 9, 2012. REUTERS/KCNA