Disney’s Fantasyland Meets North Korea’s

July 13 (Bloomberg) -- North Korea’s brushes with Disney tend to be less than magical.

The Kim Dynasty’s first foray to the place where dreams come true ended in a nightmare. In 2001, the brother of leader Kim Jong Un tried to enter Japan to visit Tokyo Disneyland. His Dominican Republic passport and lack of Spanish skills piqued the interest of customs officers, and was an endless source of embarrassment for their Dear Leader father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December.

Eleven years after his brother’s attempted visit to Tokyo, Kim the younger had an epiphany. If the Kims can’t meet Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh on their home turf, bring them to the capital, Pyongyang. On July 6, Kim’s crew of clapping generals watched their favorite Walt Disney Co. characters dance on stage as clips of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Dumbo” played on giant screens.

Taking in the television footage, you can’t help but ask: Are we actually afraid of this Kim Jong Un guy?

On some level, we need to be because of his nuclear arsenal, abysmal human-rights record, the erratic behavior of the Kims over 60-plus years and the fact an untested 20-something is surrounded by scheming generals bored with this peace stuff. Yet let’s look through the conventional wisdom to the ways he’s proving to be quite different from his father and grandfather -- and how it may bode well for change in the world’s most bizarre totalitarian state.

Worsening Economy

Much of the press coverage has focused on Disney’s dismay over North Korea’s unauthorized use of its trademarks. That’s silly. Disney’s quarrel isn’t with North Korea; it’s with Pyongyang’s benefactor, China, and its intellectual-property piracy industry. Far more attention should be paid to why today’s Kim is playing to the masses more than those who ruled before him. In all likelihood, it’s because of the worsening economy.

As with Iran, it has taken years for the pain of sanctions to work. Slowly but surely, efforts to clamp down on weapons sales, currency counterfeiting and the flow of luxury items such as Mercedes sedans, Rolexes and Cognac that the Kims use to secure loyalty from the elites are inflicting pain.

In April, Japan’s Mainichi newspaper published a leaked record of comments Kim made to top aides in late January: “When it comes to the economy, officials and economists are reluctant to voice their opinions because they are often met with bias and criticism that they are trying to introduce capitalist methods when they suggest some economic measures.”

Mainichi also quoted a party official who claimed Kim supports trying “excellent” economic strategies “whether they are from China, Russia or Japan.” If this is even slightly true, it suggests a significant change in guiding philosophies from one Kim generation to another.

That’s consistent with claims by Choi Se Woong, a banker who fled North Korea after years of working for the regime, that Kim might relax controls over an economy that has gotten as far as it can by blackmailing the world for food and financial support with threats and provocations. It means that maybe, just maybe, Kim is as interested in learning from China’s success as he is in milking officials in Beijing for handouts.

Last week, South Korean media quoted Kim as saying the North must catch up with “global trends” by upgrading its fossilized industries. That’s a shift from the concept of “juche,” or self-reliance, that was his father’s mantra.

Unthinkable Transparency

It’s interesting, too, that when a missile launch failed in April, North Korea didn’t lie to the world and claim success. It admitted what happened. Even before that, it was extraordinary that North Korea had bussed in a group of foreign journalists to cover the event. That level of transparency would have been unthinkable under Kim Jong Il.

Some will dismiss Kim’s Disney bash as typical North Korean lunacy. Seriously, what is it with North Korea’s Disney fascination, considering Walt Disney’s own unabashed hatred of communism? Perhaps it’s because, like Disneyland, North Korea is a fantasyland -- just without the magic and happy endings.

It’s entirely possible Kim will pull off a nuclear test in the near future, the third for the Hermit Kingdom. For better or worse, Kim has a bunch of Cold War-era generals itching to remind the world of their might. He still needs to win their devotion.

Yet big changes start with small gestures. 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? Kim’s father had an enormous DVD library teeming with Hollywood classics, but he never indulged in big, public celebrations of Western culture. Kim might as well have served Big Macs and Starbucks frappuccinos to his distinguished guests.

Beyond the schlock and the kitsch, this Swiss-educated, Michael Jordan fan may be telegraphing a not-so-subliminal message. As reformers go, it’s just possible that Kim Jong Un won’t be as Mickey Mouse as people think.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: William Pesek in Tokyo at

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