PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh took the stage in North Korea during a concert for new leader Kim Jong Un, in an unusual performance featuring Disney characters.
Performers dressed as Minnie Mouse, Tigger and others danced and pranced as footage from "Snow White," ''Dumbo," ''Beauty and the Beast" and other Disney movies played on a massive backdrop, according to still photos shown on state TV.
The inclusion of characters popular in the West — particularly from the United States, North Korea's wartime enemy — is a notable change in direction for performances in Pyongyang. Actors and actresses also showed off new wardrobes, including strapless gowns and little black dresses.
In recent years, performances such as the "Arirang" mass games featured performers dressed as panda bears in homage to North Korean ally China.
This appears to be the first time Disney characters have been included in a major performance, though Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse have been popular among children for several years. Backpacks, pencil cases and pajamas imported from China often feature Disney characters, and stories such as "Dumbo" have been translated into Korean for North Korean schoolchildren. However, it is unusual to make such images a central part of a North Korean performance and to publicize it on state TV.
Zenia Mucha, chief spokesperson for The Walt Disney Co., said the use of Disney characters in the North Korean performance was not authorized by the U.S. entertainment company.
"This was not licensed or authorized by The Walt Disney Company," Mucha told the AP by telephone on Sunday.
U.S. sanctions prohibit the import of North Korean goods to the United States, but do not ban the sales of American consumer products in North Korea unless they involve officials or companies on the U.S. Treasury Department's sanctions blacklist.
The performance was staged Friday by the Moranbong band, which was making its debut after being assembled by Kim himself, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.
Kim, who took power after his father, longtime leader Kim Jong Il, died in December, has a "grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year," KCNA said.
The dispatch made no mention of Disney characters, but said the concert included the traditional folk tune "Arirang" as well as a number of upbeat foreign songs.
Featuring Disney characters signals that Kim may be seeking to carve out a different image than his father and grandfather by easing restrictions on Western culture, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean studies professor based in Seoul, South Korea.
Kim, who is in his late 20s, has sought to project an image of youth, vitality and modernity.
Early Sunday, he led top officials in paying their respects to his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, at the mausoleum where he lies in state. Kim died 18 years ago Sunday.
Earlier in the year, a quintet of accordionists became a YouTube sensation for their arrangement of "Take on Me," a pop song by the Norwegian band a-ha.
North Korea and the United States remain in a technical state of war because they signed a truce, not a peace treaty, after three years of fighting in 1953. The foes do not have diplomatic relations.
Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.