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North Korea's Disney party

North Korea’s state TV has released pictures of Kim Jong-un at a concert featuring performing Disney characters.
Last modified: 9 Jul 2012 15:16
An unidentified woman pictured with Kim Jong-un has prompted speculation about whether she is his partner or his younger sister

It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears.
It’s a world of hopes, it’s a word of fear.
There’s so much that we share
That it’s time we’re aware,
It’s a small world after all.

It’s not 100 per cent certain that the Disney Corporation was referring to the Korean peninsula when it commissioned its signature tune in the 1960s. But the subtext is there if you’re willing to squint a little.

Especially after this weekend. North Korea’s state television channel has released pictures of the young leader Kim Jong-un at a concert featuring musicians in surprisingly contemporary, you might say Western, outfits, and a group of performing Disney characters.

More interesting is what he’s quoted as saying at the event: that in addition to forging its own unique culture, North Korea should “boldly embrace” good things that come from abroad.

It might seem scant evidence from which to draw too many conclusions about the mind of the man, and the future of his country. But it’s the sort of thing South Korea’s community of North Korea watchers have long had to do. Without a steady stream of reliable information coming south, small, often contradictory fragments are pored over closely, assessed against each other, and theories are built.

One of the masters of this peculiarly Korean art is in fact a Russian. Professor Andrei Lankov of Seoul's Kookmin University says the interesting thing to watch for at the moment is any sign of change in Pyongyang’s relationship with China. Has cross-border trade dipped? Have high-level political exchanges been cut back? Has China decided to try the tourniquet in dealing with its troublesome neighbour?

If so (North Korea watching is replete with such phrases), key to the outcome of the strategy would be how such pressure would affect Kim Jong-un. Lankov is a fan of the rhetorical question: “Is he a secret reformer? Is he weak?”

That’s why something as esoteric as a Pyongyang concert featuring cocktail dresses and cartoon characters can become the subject of serious academic attention. For the record, Lankov files Kim Jong-un’s comments under “interesting” – reflecting a more conciliatory approach to the outside world that began in May, after April’s failed rocket launch.

Of course there are other signs that would suggest Kim Jong-un is a hardliner, rather than a secret reformer. For example, he’s credited by some for a comprehensive crackdown on the border with China, something seen in the sharply reduced number of defectors arriving in South Korea this year.

The other big topic of discussion has been the identity of the woman pictured sitting to Kim’s right during the concert. There’d been speculation that she might be his wife, or his younger sister. But Seoul’s Joongang Daily says she’s been identified as Hyon Song-wol, a well-known, married singer.

Something else for Seoul’s North Korea watchers to chew on.