North Korean dictator applauds Disney performance

A troupe of dancing Disney characters have put on an unusual show in the anti-American ‘hermit kingdom’ of North Korea. Is Mickey Mouse the USA’s most powerful weapon?

Onstage, it passed for an ordinary – if low-budget – variety show. A group of miniskirted singers were joined by dancing Disney characters: Winnie the Pooh, one of Snow White’s Dwarves, Minnie and Mickey Mouse. The audience went wild as Mickey conducted the orchestra’s final piece to rapturous applause.

This, however, was no normal performance. The show took place in North Korea: a totalitarian dictatorship, rogue state, and sworn enemy of the United States. And in the front row, the country’s young dictator Kim Jong-un laughed and clapped along.

For decades, North Korea has isolated itself from the international community, building up the world’s fifth largest military, and prohibiting foreign culture. From an early age, North Korean children are taught that America is the enemy.

A show from America’s Disney icons, then, comes as a big surprise. North Korea’s state media says it is part of a ‘grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn’ in art and literature. Some think this could be a hint that the hermit kingdom is warming to America’s ways.

If true, the show could represent a small but significant victory for American ‘soft power’. This term, coined by political scientist Joseph Nye, refers to the ways in which a country can influence others and achieve its goals without using military force. Soft power is built on subtle assets like media, culture and reputation, that can be used to sway opinion and win friends all over the world.

For America, business and media have long been crucial soft power weapons. Brands like McDonald’s and Coca Cola export US culture all over the world in the form of Big Macs and fizzy drinks. Media companies like CNN – and, for the UK, the even larger BBC – provide the world with news, neatly packed with Western values, and associated with a particular nation.

They aren’t the only countries to take advantage of the power of persuasion. Today, China is working hard to build up its soft power by sponsoring Mandarin lessons in schools, and plans to export its own Chinese news service. The aim? To win trade, and supportive allies, all over the world.

Softening the blow

So is Mickey Mouse bringing America to North Korea? Many say he isn’t. Mickey is just a cartoon character, who represents nothing serious about American values. Kim Jong-un is only clapping at a mouse in a top hat.

Not at all, others argue. By applauding Mickey, the Korean dictator celebrates the American culture he is meant to hate. Once someone has been won over by Disney’s adorable characters, they are likely to accept other American values. Mickey Mouse is in fact a foreign policy trojan horse.

You Decide

  1. Is Mickey Mouse a powerful tool in America’s foreign policy?
  2. When it comes to influencing global politics, which is more powerful: a TV show, or a bomb?

Activities

  1. Design a cartoon character that could appear in international TV shows and magazines, and increase your country’s ‘soft’ power by making it seem more attractive and appealing.
  2. Which countries in the world do you think have the most ‘soft power’? List your top three, then compare with others in the class.

Some People Say...

“American culture has taken over the world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does Disney know about this?
It does now. But the company has made it very clear that the use of its characters was ‘unauthorised’. It hasn’t given its blessing to the North Korean state quite yet.
Why is this happening now?
Last December, Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, died. He had ruled over North Korea – and been treated as a god by its people – for many years, and his death was met with scenes of amazing grief in the country. Now, Kim Jong-un has taken his father’s place as ruler, and no-one is sure what changes he might introduce.
More openness?
Possibly. But it is more likely that he will focus less on foreign affairs, and more on making an impression among his own people, to secure his power within North Korea.

Word Watch

Totalitarian
In a totalitarian state, a government, and often a single leader, exerts total control over almost all areas of life. People do not get a democratic say in who holds the power, and are expected to display complete loyalty to authority. Nazi Germany was one of the most notorious totalitarian states of recent times.
Hermit kingdom
North Korea is often referred to as a ‘hermit kingdom’ because it isolates itself completely from the international community. Its rulers believe in a philosophy called Juche. which advocates total self-sufficiency, and a culture that refuses to be influenced by the rest of the world.
Trojan horse
According to ancient legends, Greek forces came up with a cunning plan to break into the enemy city of Troy. They constructed a huge wooden horse, filled it with Greek soldiers, and left it outside Troy’s walls as a ‘gift’. When the Trojans wheeled the huge horse inside, the Greeks waited until nightfall before jumping out and letting in the rest of their army. They ransacked the city, and won the war.

Subjects

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