This month in Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's crew of clapping generals watched their favorite Walt Disney 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. Yet in many ways he's proving to be quite different from his father and grandfather — and that may bode well for change in the world's most bizarre totalitarian state.
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.
© 2012 Bloomberg News