In the 45 years since Paul Anka wrote it and Frank Sinatra made it famous, “My Way” has celebrated the rugged individualism that Americans like to think defines their spirit of independence, determination and pride.
But those are not virtues held dear in totalitarian North Korea, where deviation from Communist conformity can land a maverick in the nearest re-education camp.
So North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s recent embrace of Western songs, movies, cartoon characters and flashy fashion — public displays his late father and grandfather would have denounced as “spiritual pollution” — has set Korea analysts to pontificating on what the new leader’s cultural inclinations might signify.
North Korea’s KRT state broadcaster released almost two hours of video Thursday of the recent debut concert of the all-female Moranbong entertainment troupe that other state media said was assembled by Kim as part of his “grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and the arts this year.”
Gone were the shapeless trouser suits of mass spectacles of the past, replaced by sassy mini-skirted violinists and vocalists in strapless gowns. Cast members clad like Disney characters Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh pranced around the stage while clips from Hollywood classics were projected as backdrop, scenes from the decidedly anti-Communist “Rambo IV” spooling out as Moranbong sang its eclectic repertoire, including a stylized version of “My Way.”
Most intriguing of all for North Korea watchers has been Kim’s elegant female companion, caught on film but never identified by the state-run media chronicling the new leader’s every public move. South Korean media claimed she was a former pop star, Hyon Song-wol, whom Kim dated briefly a decade ago after returning from studies in Switzerland.
Since taking over the leadership after the death of his father in December, Kim has presided over April tributes on the centennial of the birth of his grandfather, North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, and a Sunday event to mark the anniversary of his death in 1994.
Kim has already exceeded the public forays of his father, Kim Jong Il, who made only one speech during his 17 years in power and that only a single sentence, notes Stephan Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific Program at UC San Diego. But he warns journalists and analysts against reading too much into small gestures and symbols.
“He’s set in train a change in leadership style but that doesn’t necessarily translate into substance,” Haggard said of Kim. “He seems to have a very different ruling style — more engaged, more public — but I see nothing pointing toward any reformist inclinations.”
Haggard and a research associate from the National Committee on North Korea, Marcus Noland, recently compiled an analysis of promotions within the Pyongyang hierarchy since 2010, when the younger Kim’s influence became more pronounced in the waning days of his father’s life. They found an increasing tendency to put military figures in positions of power, rather than elevating economists, professionals and technocrats with expertise needed to guide development and growth.
Haggard attributes the bows to modernity and Western influence on display at the July 6 concert to the pressure being brought on the government by “a kind of low-level restiveness within the economic and political elite of Pyongyang to provide more space for them to consume and to have more access to information.”
In the countryside, hunger and poverty still prevail, he said, quoting a friend who had just returned from a trip to rural areas of North Korea’s east coast as saying that he felt like he was “walking backwards through time.”
David Chan-oong Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC, also sees little evidence of an impending opening in North Korea in Kim’s indulgence of foreign commercial influences and more modern dress and amusements.
“It’s really easy for those of us on the outside to exoticize North Korea,” he said. “Everything seems weird and strange. Since we don’t know what ordinary is, we tend to emphasize the extraordinary.”
Black market traders who have ferried in food to help North Koreans in the drought-stricken countryside have also smuggled in Western music and videos, as well as cheap Chinese-made toys, backpacks and other items sporting copyrighted logos and figures that have made characters like Mickey, Minnie and Winnie familiar even in the Hermit Kingdom.
“How close have they come to being an open society? Not very close,” said Kang. “But how far have they come in breaking out of total control? Quite far.”
He predicts a period of gradual change, as North Koreans become exposed to the global cultural scene, which could eventually erode the country’s self-imposed isolation.
“There’s no question they’re in for changes. They have this really young, new leader. That doesn’t mean, though, that he’s planning some massive Gorbachevian change,” said Kang. “Anyone who knows what they’re talking about on North Korea will admit they don’t know what’s going on there.”