Mickey, Mao Suit, and Missiles

The world’s foremost Hermit Kingdom, North Korea, recently played host to the Magic Kingdom, as Mickey Mouse and company staged a concert that was broadcast throughout the country.  The characters danced and pranced to familiar tunes, including the ‘Rocky’ theme song, as the country’s newly-minted leader Kim Jong-un and at least one hundred other people clapped and cheered with enthusiasm. Adding to the hubbub around the performance, North Korean state-run media has confirmed that the mystery woman who accompanied Kim Jong-un at the concert is actually his wife.

Yes, you read that correctly: the Supreme Leader of North Korea, a founding member of the infamous ‘Axis of Evil,’ is apparently a devotee of Mickey Mouse. Is this the same impenetrable North Korea that many fear and hate? How we interpret an event like this is tricky business. Could it be that after a few bad months at work, including a rocket launch failure, watching Disney cartoons is just Kim Jong-un’s way to unwind? After all, when life throws you ineffective weapons of mass destruction, why not throw a Disney party? Hakuna Matata is apparently the same in Korean!

Yet there’s a deeper question worth pondering: could the concert be a sign of a fundamental openness on Kim’s part to American culture? Indeed, some have interpreted the unauthorized performance (good luck getting someone named “supreme ruler” to comply with copyright laws) as a positive shift in the rigid Communist regime. Others have pointed to sightings of hamburgers and miniskirts as signposts of cultural change.

But we should be careful about conflating the affinity of non-Americans for American cultural icons as an automatic acceptance of American values. A few years ago, I went with some Chinese colleagues to Disneyland Hong Kong. In the course of the day, one of them asked me, “Why do you Americans think you’re the best?  Why are you so individualistic?”

I became defensive and immediately responded, “Excuse me, but if you don’t like how we do things, why the heck are you at a Disney theme park?”

Needless to say, my own missile launch backfired that day. I failed to recognize that embracing certain cultural symbols or elements does not mean that one embraces the culture entirely.  Worse still, I probably reinforced this woman’s low opinion of Americans, which I had intended to dispel. You don’t need to love Americans or American values to enjoy a Tea Cup ride. It was probably made in China anyway.

As we know, culture is a complex reality, and jumping to conclusions can get us stuck in undesirable places. Tigger the Tiger learned this the hard way. Similarly, what’s behind the Disney concert in North Korea remains unclear. Perhaps it represents North Korea’s opening to the West. But then again, perhaps not. After all, if anyone can lighten the burden of dictatorship, it’s Mickey Mouse.

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