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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Commentary

North Korea and Disneyland

August 1, 2012 · · Originally published in Hankyoreh

The new North Korean leader likes Disney. But that's not necessarily a sign that he's leaning westward.

Mickey and Minnie have made it to PyongyangWhen North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently watched a concert that included Disney figures like Mickey Mouse, it was big news. Foreign analysts rushed to the conclusion that the young leader was presiding over a shift in Pyongyang’s attitudes about the West. After all, Mickey Mouse is a symbol of American imperialism and Western penetration almost as potent as McDonald’s.

But the worlds of Walt Disney and Kim Il Sung are actually not that far apart.

The world of Disney is the closest thing to totalitarianism that the entertainment-industrial complex has ever produced. The founder, Walt Disney, created a saccharine, air-brushed utopia that has been a dystopic reality for so many who have worked in the many enterprises of the Disney universe. The affinity between Disneyworld and the world of North Korea goes beyond any taste for Western-style entertainment that Kim Jong Un might have picked up during his Swiss education.

Walt Disney, born in 1901, created an empire of cartoons, movies, and theme parks, first in the United States and then throughout the world. He is described today in the Disney materials much as North Korean literature describes Kim Il Sung.  “One hundred years ago, Walt Disney was born. And the world changed forever,” reads the Disney website. “We all hold a special place for the magical legacy of this one man.”

You can buy a book called “Walt’s Famous Quotes,” published by the Disney company, in which the founder gives his insights about the world. Disney himself maintained tight control of the company when he was alive, engaging in his own form of “one the spot guidance” to ensure that the Disney brand remained consistent.

Maintaining tight control has allowed Disney to penetrate the minds of children everywhere. Disney’s successors, like Michael Eisner, worked hard to maintain the founder’s vision. "It was Eisner's dream that the typical consumer would patronize Disney movies, watch Disney TV shows, buy Disney videos, spend money at Disney stores, vacation on Disney cruise lines, take his or her kids to Disney theme parks - all the while becoming completely enveloped in the Disney subculture," according to Peter Bart of Variety.

Disney, in other words, is not simply a choice among many. Disney is intended to be all-encompassing.

The novelist Robert Harris, who has written books about Nazi Germany, has analyzed the totalitarian nature of Disney and critiqued its project of rewriting history and myths in order to produce its own version of the truth. He points out that Disney, like all totalitarian leaders, focuses on children, employing “that classic totalitarian technique of preaching family values while subverting the family structure, appealing over the heads of parents directly to their children.”

Disney was not content to create theme parks. He also wanted to build entire cities. The town of Celebration, Florida, is Disney-built and Disney-maintained. It looks like the set of a Disney movie depicting the 1950s: manicured lawns, white picket fences, kids on bicycles. The company even controls the weather, organizing fake snowfalls in December. Behind the scenes, however, Celebration has suffered the same problems as the rest of America: a high rate of foreclosure, suicide, and even murder.

Then there’s Disney’s approach to labor regimentation and surveillance, which rival that of North Korea. Those who aspire to work at Disneyland, for instance, go through a training period in which they are instructed to look “all-American.” In other words, according to one such aspirant, “Men were not allowed piercings, visible tattoos, or unkempt facial hair; we could wear one ring on the left hand if we wanted. Women were given an ‘appropriate’ range of hair length and amount of skin showing.” Trainees and workers are closely watched to make sure that they never violate any of the rules of Disney.

And those who manage to get a job with the company discover that, after all the deductions, they barely make enough to survive. Some employees have to rely on church donations and government assistance to get by. 

Disneyland presents one face to the world: cheerful, child-like. But the reality behind Disneyland is grim.

The world of Walt Disney is the kind of social engineering that the North Korean regime has aspired to create. North Korea, too, has a founder who serves as a substitute father for all children, who established a governing template that his successors religiously maintain, and whose wisdom continues to be celebrated through word and image. North Korea projects a utopian vision of smiling, hard-working people that turns out to be very different in reality. The government attempts to maintain strict social control, particularly in Pyongyang, the showcase capital.

And both Walt Disney and Kim Il Sung realized the power of film to capture and shape the imagination, particularly of children. They realized that if you change the minds of children, you can change the future. In North Korea, children imprint on Kim Il Sung, much as baby ducklings will imprint on the first face they see and much as children all over the world imprint on Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Kim Jong Un may turn out to be a Gorbachev-style reformer in North Korea who moves his country in the direction of the West. But the evidence for this belief is rather thin. He studied in the West and, it turns out, has a very pretty wife who is a stylish dresser. But then, Bashar al-Assad in Syria also studied in Europe and has a stylish wife, and that hasn’t prevented him from launching large-scale repression in his country.

As for Kim Jong Un’s embrace of Mickey Mouse, it may just reflect a deeper affinity between North Korea and Disneyland. The sons of Kim Jong Il have all reportedly visited Disneyland in Japan, with Kim Jong Nam deported from Narita airport in 2001 after trying to use a fake passport to gain access to his favorite destination. Portrayed as temporary escapes from their rigidly controlled country, these visits were nothing of the sort. At Disneyland, Kim Jong Un and his brothers must have felt right at home.

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