Rock chicks, show tunes and Minnie Mouse: Pyongyang swings to Kim's new vibe

SEOUL Thu Jul 12, 2012 5:57am EDT

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SEOUL (Reuters) - It might not be Lady Gaga's pop music extravaganza rolling into town, but North Korea's young dictator is taking unprecedented steps to breathe some fun into his repressive regime, helped by women rock stars in miniskirts and killer heels, and cultural icons from the usually reviled United States.

Kim Jong-un, the late-20s head of state who took over the family dynasty last December, gave the performance a thumbs up at the end. The gerontocrats who make up the ruling elite in the hermit nation also applauded enthusiastically, according to an hour and forty minutes of footage released on Thursday by North Korea's state broadcaster KRT.

There was even a love interest, and an element of mystery. Who was the attractive woman accompanying the third Kim to rule North Korea -- his wife, lover or sister?

Some observers in South Korea have speculated she is a singer he dated years ago before his father put a stop to it, but now back on the scene.

Whatever her identity, the young Kim's glitzy approach is, at least on the surface, a sharp change from his father Kim Jong-il whose dour rule took North Korea deeper into isolation, abject poverty and large-scale political repression.

Kim Jong-un's brief rule since his father's death last December has sprung many surprises.

Once the official mourning period was over, the youngest Kim to rule North Korea was seen laughing with fusty old generals, gesticulating in delight at a military parade and, the biggest shock of all, speaking. Most North Koreans went to their graves never having seen Kim the elder speak.

The unusual gala performance took place on Saturday and featured Walt Disney's "It's A Small World", a thumping rock version of the theme tune to "Rocky" and Frank Sinatra's "My Way", a song that might have particular appeal to the Kim family, whose word is law in North Korea.

THE DISNEY CONNECTION

Bizarrely for a state which frequently and vociferously voices its loathing for all things American, it featured a cast of Disney characters, including Winnie the Pooh and Minnie Mouse. The family does have a previous Disney connection: the ruler's elder brother, Kim Jong-nam, said he was on his way to Tokyo Disneyland when he was caught illegally entering Japan in 2001.

"North Korea, which has long lambasted Yankee culture, played American iconic songs and movies and disclosed the performance through its official TV channel. That shows Kim Jong-un is readying for cultural reform and opening," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

While the Kims and the carefully chosen elite live in luxury, most North Koreans live on the verge of starvation and often rely on relatives who have fled to the prosperous South to help them feed them, and buy essential drugs.

Before the Swiss-educated Kim Jong-un took power, what passed for entertainment for most North Koreans were patriotic films, circuses and magic shows, all showcasing the virtues of the regime that took over North Korea after World War Two.

The annual mass games, synchronized events featuring thousand of choreographed athletes have featured pandas dedicated to China, its only ally and major economic backer.

At times when relations between the North and South, currently at a low ebb, are better, South Korean bands have performed there.

"Honestly, it was so stiff that it scared me," Ock Joo-hyun, a member of South Korean girl band Fin.K.L said in a TV documentary program, recalling the challenge of performing in front of Northern stern-faced audience in 1999.

"We were told to not show too much so we all put on long skirts."

(Editing by Daniel Magnowski)

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