Chairman Mouse: The parallel fantasia of North Korea and Tokyo Disneyland

Chairman mouse e-cover

Chairman Mouse is a 5,000-word essay I originally published in 2013 as a Kindle short under the name of Our Man in Abiko. I unpublished it a few years ago because I wanted to move into fiction and thought the essay didn’t really fit in with my other stuff. I’m republishing here now under my own name (for free) because I’m not so precious about what people think of it now. It is what it is. And  — in these times of heightened sabre rattling and tension-ratchetting — it is also, I hope, a reminder that our fantasies, just as much as North Korea’s, enable evil to be done.

* * *

When Joe saw the sentries, he broke out in a cold sweat.

He knew the rules. How could he not? He’d heard them repeated from loudspeakers buried in the square bushes all along the kilometre of asphalt to the checkpoint. 

“Enter in an orderly fashion. All bags will be inspected.” 

It was the last sentence that made his legs shake.

He told himself that this was just part of the game his uncles had been teaching him to play. But if it was just a game, why did they make him repeat and memorise every action until he could think of nothing else? He couldn’t even remember his own name. Weren’t games supposed to be fun?

He went over in his head for the two-hundredth time what he had to do. If anyone was to doubt his identity papers he was to shrug and say, “My name is Joe.” If that wasn’t enough he was to say “Joseph. Joseph Pak. I am eight years old.” And say nothing else. If he played this game right, he could meet up with his mother. She’d be waiting for him on the other side… if he didn’t mess this up. The thing was that the guards must not become suspicious. His life, his uncles’ lives and his mother’s depended on it.

He was nearly at the front of the queue. He turned around and looked back along the line snaking behind him back over the concrete. Somewhere lost in the mass of people his older brother must be standing. He said he’d done this before. He said everything would be fine, there was nothing to it. And yet there was something not right…

“Bag please,” the sentry said.

The boy held out his Mickey Mouse backpack for him to inspect. He could have told them everything that was in it: a bottle of water in case he got hot, a sweater in case he got cold. A rice ball in case he got hungry. What he couldn’t tell anyone about was the secret. Sewn in to the left back-strap was $1,000 and in the right a capsule that he was to bite into “if all else failed.”

Some game.

The guard was suspicious. The boy knew it.

“J-J-Joe,” the boy blurted out. But he couldn’t stop his leg from shaking… 

* * *

My apologies for beginning this essay with a piece of fiction. What truly happened on May 12th, 1991, is only known to a handful of people still alive, but what we can piece together from Japanese intelligence leaked to the press is that the eight-year-old boy was Kim Jong-un, the eventual heir to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — the Kim family fantasy-land that is North Korea.

Lil’ Kim had entered Japan with his elder brother, Kim Jong-chul, on Brazilian passports. The two left a week later. They had been accompanied by ten minders. Their mother, a Japanese-born ethnic Korean dancer, Ko-Yong-hi, entered Japan a few days later.

Their destination was Tokyo Disneyland.

What did the future Supreme Leader of North Korea make of the place? I can claim personal experience here — I have survived Space Mountain, battled Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, come through the Country Bear Jamboree and lived to tell the tale. So, take it as the word of a survivor when I say, I can be confident of one thing: Lil’ Kim absolutely, unreservedly loved Tokyo Disneyland. Why wouldn’t he?

If we erase the history that we know, it all becomes so much easier to understand. Forget for a moment the Korean Central News Agency’s vitriolic hatred of the imperialist Japan, which had annexed the country in the first half of the century, sowing a generation of resentment (and coincidentally, establishing the industrial infrastructure that kept the country going until the collapse of the communist bloc 60 years later). Forget for a moment more Walt Disney’s personal avowed anti-communism, his formation of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and naming of names to the House Un-American Activities Committee back in the good ol’ days of the 1950s. Keep the amnesia going for just a moment more to forget that the Disney Co. is praised as “America’s national baby-sitter, myth-maker and re-creator of history, the Sistine Chapel of service culture” by business writers and other, er, lapdogs of their capitalist masters. Forget all that.

Tokyo Disneyland is an aspiring despot’s wet dream.

Now, before we depart for that destination and I wow you along the way with comparatively few typos given the length of some of the sentences that you would expect of an essay with the necessary flab to distract you from the intellectual leanness of its opening premise: Disney is evil, North Korea is evil, therefore they are the same (any reasonable adult who has spent the day sober in Tokyo Disneyland doesn’t need an essay to know the place is evil) I must first offer a few disclaimers.

I have no first-hand knowledge of North Korea. Or South Korea for that matter, having never been to either. I’ve never spoken to any Koreans that I’m aware of. I have, however, spoken to a Russian Cinderella in Tokyo Disneyland standing near the statue of Walt Disney. And while she offered no useful first-hand intel on the movements of Mickey, I do have first-hand intel of the original communist fantasy theme park, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, having ridden the overnight train from Moscow to Leningrad as a student, three years before Lil’ Kim rode Dumbo the Flying Elephant in Tokyo Disneyland.

* * *

“What?”

“I’m J-Joe. Joseph Pak. Eight years old.”

The boy handed his papers over. The sentry barely looked at them. Then a second guard beckoned the boy through the checkpoint and handed him something made of paper. And though he couldn’t read it, he could tell from the diagrams what it was. A map.

He was through. Was this a trap? It couldn’t be this easy. He wanted to race away, but he could hardly run now. What would his uncles say? What would his mother? He couldn’t let them down.

He forced himself forward with a steadiness he didn’t feel as his heart beat faster than it had ever done before.

“Hey, young man. Not so fast.”

The first sentry was shouting to him. The boy went pale.

* * *

Fantasy. It’s what drives ambition. It’s what drove the creation of North Korea and Tokyo Disneyland.

Both were envisioned as pieces of perfection amid a real world of suffering. Both were long-term projects built on dreams of men of a certain age, shall we say; the age that you don’t ask them at parties: “And what did you do in the war?”

You certainly didn’t ask the grandfather of North Korea for details. Kim Il-sung, the son of missionary Presbyterians, whose only formal schooling was eight years in Chinese, he could barely speak Korean, but had impressively embellished credentials as a guerilla fighter against the Japanese. As Stalin was gearing up to sweep through to Japan itself, Uncle Joe installed Grandpa Kim as his Korea candidate, a chip off the old communist’s bloc.

But the founding fathers of Tokyo Disneyland had a lot more trouble getting set up. For one thing, Uncle Walt wanted nothing to do with a Disneyland in Tokyo. It wasn’t his dream, but that of a troika of Tokyo Imperial University graduates: Chiharu Kawasaki, president of the Keisei Electric Railway Co. Ltd., referred to in Disney propaganda as the “Grandfather of Tokyo Disneyland”; Hideo Edo, president of real estate giant Mitsui Fudosan Co. Ltd.; and Masatomo Takahashi, a tough talking, heavy drinking maverick war veteran of Shanghai and New Guinea, aka the “Father of Tokyo Disneyland”.

It’s tempting to think of Tokyo Disneyland as a get-rich-quick real estate scheme, only it was hardly quick: it would take over two decades to hit pay dirt. In Japanese post-war real estate, there was one tried and trusted road to riches: build it and they will come. That is, build a department store out in the boonies were the land is dirt cheap, stick a train station in the basement and run a train line back to town. Hey presto, you’ve magically transmuted the muck of the farmland into residential property gold. The trick is to own that land before its value skyrockets.

Of Mice and Men

Bored with department stores? Try an amusement park. While Kawasaki was on a business trip to California in the 1950s he visited the newly opened Disneyland and was smitten with the dream of mice and men: his genius was to see clearly that this dream-world, not the half-arsed excuses for railway lines, was what the Japanese really wanted. And no pale imitation of Disneyland either; it had to be the real thing; or rather, the real fantasy. He just needed some place to lay the cement.

And so the Oriental Land Company was born in 1960 in a back office of the Keisei Electric Railway offices in Ueno, a world away from the monster of an amusement park that would one day rise out of the shallow waters of Tokyo Bay.

Meanwhile, in North Korea, Grandpa Kim was cementing his own position, and setting in concrete the road to his Mickey Mouse state. In 1958, he outlined who measured up to ride the Korean roller coaster of state — the “core class” 25 per cent who had  fought the Japanese, or were workers or peasants in 1950; most everyone else were in one of 47 distinct groups, but lumped under the “wavering class” (55 per cent). At the bottom were the “hostile class” (20 per cent). These were of course the dregs and included anyone with a father, uncle or grandfather who owned land, was a doctor, merchant, lawyer or a Christian priest. In other words, anyone like Grandpa Kim’s own parents (Freud would have had a field day). The higher the threat to Kim’s power, the lower the status afforded.

While North Koreans fretted about who was in and who was out, the Japanese did too as Tokyo lurched from wartime austerity to a post-war boomtown of construction projects. And Chiba Prefecture, the New Jersey to Tokyo’s New York, wanted a piece of the action. Everywhere close to Tokyo was ready for a boom except the low-class Chiba fishing villages in Urayasu, on the eastern edge of Tokyo Bay that had no train line into the Megalopolis. But all around, land reclamation projects were underway to turn the sea into real estate.

Trouble at Mill

Just as well, because in 1958 a paper mill, Honshu Paper, began spewing toxins into Tokyo Bay. The shallow waters around Urayasu turned black. That was the end for the fish, and the beginning of the end of the line for the fishermen.

But they didn’t go quietly. Eight hundred of the men marched to Tokyo and occupied one of the paper mill’s Tokyo factories. The riot police’s expulsion of the fishermen became national news and the injustice done to them became a cause celebre. The Japanese government, which had regained nominal independence from American occupation only six years earlier, bowed to public pressure and passed an anti-water pollution law, Japan’s first, thanks to the fishermen of Urayasu whose collectivist action standing up to the capitalist polluters would have earned them the respect of any right-thinking communist. Trouble was, there weren’t many of them left, even in North Korea. But more of that later.

In 1961, the Oriental Land Company had bigger fish to fry. That is, they would have to convince 1,700 hardy, politicised fisher folk to sell their fishing rights to the sand-bank known as O-sankaku to make way for Mickey’s land reclamation.

Enter Masamoto Takahashi and his never-ending bar tab. Takahashi, a trusted friend of realtor Hideo Edo, knew that consensus was everything, or put it this way, one fisherman who didn’t agree could scuttle the whole deal.

Takahashi would do it his way, one man and one drink at a time. He began hanging around in Urayasu dives. In the first month, his bar tab was ¥800,000 — adjusted for inflation, that’s about $80,000 in today’s money. And the negotiations took 10 years.

But by March 1962, Takahashi had a preliminary agreement to proceed. Land reclamation and talks would drag on to 1971. With the dearth of fish, the villagers’ way of life was gone, but that didn’t stop them holding out for the best terms they could get — the end of 1,000 years of the fishermen’s self-sufficiency was agreed at ¥8 million per man — around $800,000 in today’s money.

But the price for North Korea to retain its self-sufficiency was even higher. As Grandpa Kim saw how the land lay with his unreliable communist Big Brothers — increasing craziness from Mao and the de-Stalinisation of the USSR, which is a bad thing if you are an autocratic Stalinist yourself — he looked to Vietnam and tried aping Ho Chi Minh’s success with guerilla warfare. This would culminate in the failed 1968 assassination attempt on Grandpa Kim’s South Korean counterpart, Park Chung-hee.

Paean The DPRK

Incidentally, the following day, the North Korean Navy would capture the World War II-era converted freighter USS Pueblo that was spying on Soviet naval movements through the Tsushima Strait. I mention this here mainly out of admiration for the Pueblo’s captain. He kept his cool not to confess his sins against the communist state, even under extreme psychological torture of a mock firing squad. Finally, his exasperated North Korean hosts told Commander Lloyd M. Bucher that they would execute his 82 surviving crew members in front of him if he did not confess to spying. Our Man in Pyongyang took the only course open to him in the circumstances and wrote this marvellous apology that was way over the heads of his humourless hosts: We paean the DPRK. We paean the Korean people. We paean their great leader Kim Il-sung. Bucher would continue to serve in the US Navy until his retirement. He died in 2004.)

The capture of the Pueblo was to prove to be the high watermark of North Korea’s attempts to pee on the United States. It’s moored in Pyongyang to this day, a floating museum attraction to happier times when DPRK self-sufficiency meant strength under fire rather than mass starvation.

Anyway, so it was that the policy of juche self-sufficiency became the official ideology of North Korea, replacing Marxism-Leninism in 1972 as Grandpa Kim pivoted the nation further away from international proletarian revolution to his totalitarian family fantasy-land.

At the same time, negotiations with Disney Co. were bearing fruit now that the Oriental Land Company actually had some land. A basic agreement was signed on December 6th, 1974, in which Disney would receive 10 per cent of all gate receipts and five per cent from all food in return for slipping Japan the Mickey.

The year 1980 would prove to be decisive for the future of Tokyo Disneyland and North Korea. The Oriental Land Company lined up 22 financial institutions behind the Chiba Prefecture government to guarantee the ¥100 billion it would cost to build the park (it eventually ran to ¥180 billion, or about $2 billion in today’s money — over six per cent of the entire GDP of North Korea in 2011), and the first of 150 trainee cast members were deployed to Disneyland California to learn the ropes.

In North Korea, in October, Grandpa Kim publicly anointed his son, Kim Jong-il, father of Lil’ Kim, as successor to the Pyongyang family throne and he began his own training program with his very first seat on the Politburo.

Two months later, the ground was broken for Tokyo Disneyland.

Perhaps numbers tell the story best: On April 15th, 1983, Tokyo Disneyland opened and around 10 million people would visit the park in the first year, roughly the same figure as the number of North Koreans in uniform. Coincidence? Yes, absolutely. Oh, and by the way, when the gates opened, the value of the land surrounding Tokyo Disneyland rose 30 times. The old guard were living the dream in the ’80s. But trouble was just around the corner.

* * *

“You forgot this.”

The sentry hoisted the bag by its left strap and threw it at the boy…

The boy picked up his Mickey backpack and ran as fast as his little legs could carry him. He smacked through grown-ups’ arms and legs, until he had no choice but to slow down as the hordes of people streaming through the checkpoints were scrunched together under a domed walkway. There were more people dressed in brightly coloured clothing than he had ever seen. Was this a special day? Had they done this for him? Children’s music was playing from loudspeakers he couldn’t see. And where was his mother?

He was at a crossroads. 

* * *

“Are you trying to kill me?”

It was an all-too typical moment of honesty from my Japanese mother-in-law. All my wife had suggested was that maybe, just maybe, she’d like to accompany us as we took our two daughters to Tokyo Disneyland…?

“Not on your life.”

I’ve long envied my mother-in-law’s ability to retain independence, self-sufficiency and resistance to the Disney fantasy, while I, dutiful husband and father, have to sublimate my true feelings toward Uncle Walt for the benefit of family harmony, the wa I’ve read so much about that is apparently essential to Japanese culture, marital bliss and the Disney bottom line.

So allow me to unburden myself here in a momentarily un-Japanese stream of consciousness, but I promise to tie up all loose ends in an immaculate ribbon fit for a Japanese department store gift-wrapping section.

Where to start?

How about the future? The Tomorrowland of Tokyo Disneyland is distinctly nostalgic, a tomorrow as viewed from its inaugural year, 1983. A future of unbound possibilities, lasers and mullets.

These days, only a North Korean could be fooled that by donning 3-D glasses to watch Michael Jackson prance about in the Captain EO “attraction” that he was staring at the future and not the past. I’ve tried my best to repress the memory of the grainy analogue film on a visit in 2010, but I recall it featured lots of leggings, friendly muppet-like aliens and Mr. Jackson saving mullet-children from an evil intergalactic transvestite queen.

Hermit state

Though, I may well be wrong on some of the details now. I tried to make my mind go blank and smother my sorrows in stewed coffee and microwaved pizza over at the Tomorrowland Terrace cafeteria. But it was hard to block out the 1980s vision of the future as the loudspeakers were booming a loop of Jean-Michel-Jarre-esque synthesiser music. I tried to escape into the online world but of course they don’t have wi-fi in Tomorrowland. Getting a charge for your smart-phone in Tokyo Disneyland was as hard as getting electricity in North Korea. Fantasists the world over don’t encourage access to the ultimate alternate reality: the real world. Oh, Uncle Walt. How very undemocratic, how very much like the favourite shorthand phrase journalists use to describe North Korea: “hermit state.”

I tried to create my own alternate analogue reality amid the jarring Jarre music using pencil and paper to take notes, but I was living on borrowed time. I had no pencil sharpener. I could ill-afford breaking the lead, then my own reality would shatter. I had a new-found comradeship with the Leningrad jazz-fusion guitarist who could equally ill-afford to break an irreplaceable string and have no defence against the loudspeaker music approved by the authorities.

I was getting strange stares too.

Was I being subversive by writing? Possibly. I think it was more that I had commandeered the pencil from my daughter, it was garish, girly and tinselly, emblazoned with the letters KARA — the name of a South Korean girl-band my daughter was obsessed with. It dawned on me that I was committing an obvious thought crime; subscribing to a fantasy that wasn’t permitted in the Disney world. KARA was not WALT. Only one vision allowed in the monotheism of Mickey, the Sistine Chapel of service culture.

I’ve been to the Sistine Chapel. I’ve stood in the jabbering crowds of South Korean Buddhists and Chinese communists gawping at Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam on the ceiling. I’ve been chastised by the Italian curators for nattering, not showing adequate respect for the solemnity of the occasion, and I’ve been subjected to a slow handclap and cries of Prego! Prego! with exaggerated actions of a finger to lips. Shut Up! Perhaps the Sistine Chapel could have learnt from Disney and piped some suitably solemn music in to set the mood? I don’t have the answer, but I think it’s only fitting to ask: What would Walt do?

Between the ropes

At Tokyo Disneyland at least, he’d have to stand in line. The lines. Thousands upon thousands of the willing queue up even when the sign says expected wait time is 120 minutes. That’s two hours to you and me. Don’t think of the hours of tedium as you queue on the baking concrete, as the kids bicker and your neck reddens in the sun; think instead of the happy ending that Uncle Walt promises. What’s a little suffering for the greater good that awaits? The key is to feel progress minute by minute, not to notice the hours slipping from your life.

That’s why it’s so important to go round corners. I may have been trapped in this line, but look, every ten minutes or so I get to go around a corner and it might be the ride! Although it’s invariably another set of ropes, another mass of teeming humanity inching along in the great pilgrimage to Uncle Walt’s fantasy. And when the blessed moment comes for the two-minute ride, it feels that the day spent shuffling from one roped-off fibre-glass fantasy-land to the next was one of progress and advancement.

But it’s a con.

Your feelings have been manipulated. Don’t think of the 1,000-year way of life for the Urayasu fishermen going up in sake and smoke. Don’t think of a generation of North Korean children who would starve to death while their government’s advice was to eat sawdust as their future leader donned Mickey ears for a family holiday round Tokyo Disneyland. In fact, don’t think at all. Just join the queue.

Will the ride at the end of the line be a Space Mountain roller coaster as rickety as a DPRK rocket? A “live” music show of audio-animatronic dancing bears singing country and western? Yeeee-haa!

Or a merciful shot to the head by a firing squad?

Who knows? And that’s the point. If you want to manipulate someone stick to the minutia, never allow your victim to see the bigger picture. Stay between the ropes.

But that’s not to say the manipulated can’t dream; as long as their dreams are also between the ropes. Uncle Walt wanted to recreate the idealised childhood he never had, being the put-upon son of a stern, unloving father.

At the opening of the California Disneyland he stood in a mock-up of his bedroom looking down at his idealised version of a Missouri main street at the turn of the century with tears streaming down his face. This is Uncle Walt’s dream, and now it is a global vision, with a little something for all, from Anaheim with love: to Tokyo, to Paris, to Pyongyang.

Oedipal Tyrant

But then maybe all our dreams are not our own, they are implanted there by a significant other; a loving mother, a stern father, an oedipal tyrant. Looking around at the Tokyo Disneyland faithful and I don’t see a qualitative difference with the DPRK indoctrinated youngsters, proud of the red scarves and buttons of purity to the myth of the Eternal Leader. Just replace the red scarves with mouse ears and the red pins with the six miniature Mickey Mouses hanging from the backpack of one unreconstructed mousist I saw in Tokyo Disneyland the last time I was there. The only difference is that in Japan, the love of Mickey is considered infantile, harmless and cute. Yet the reality is anything but.

Japanese Mickey-love transcends age, creed and rationality. I have seen an elderly couple bedecked head to toe in officially sanctioned Disney merchandise. I have seen countless women of a certain age looking rapturously at a peon in a Mickey suit who was waving speechlessly at a fixed point in the middle distance.

Whether it is officially sanctioned or just local folklore to keep skeptical kids believing, I’ve no idea, but I was informed by a neighbour in hushed tones that whenever you see a suited-up Mickey Mouse at Tokyo Disneyland, that is the only one anywhere in the world at that time. So when the college kid is sweating buckets in the Tokyo Disneyland Parade, the kid in Hong Kong Disney is having a smoke break? What about across the international dateline in Anaheim? In Orlando? Or, across another couple more time zones to Paris Disneyland? The improbability of it all is less interesting than the belief in its existence.

And to think we sneer at North Koreans’ state cult of leader worship. How absurd that every primary school in North Korea has a room devoted to the myth of Grandpa Kim’s birth with a mock-up of the stable in which he was born. How disturbing that it is every North Korean’s duty to dust the obligatory portraits of their unholy trinity of Supreme Leader (the son), Dear Leader (the father) and Eternal Leader Grandpa Kim (the ghost) on the living room wall, to listen to state broadcasts on state-mandated radio stations, yet the true cost we pay to park our own progenies before the small screen to absorb the teachings of the Disney Channel and its legions of sassy teen mousists, generation upon generation, is never calculated.

And what lesson is it that we are to learn from Tokyo Disneyland? At the Buzz Lightyear ride your reward for queuing for an hour is a two-minute shoot ’em up where you can fire your TV-remote-control-laser at monster targets. You could spend your two-minute climax zapping monsters or twiddling your thumbs; achieve 80,000 points or 80; it makes no difference there is a man in futuristic medieval jester uniform saying well-done, giving you high fives. This is equality of result, no matter the effort. This is the Disney collective farm, the fruits of your labours rotting on the vine of irrelevance.

The Disney urge to recreate what is organic with mechanical is the scientific conquering of nature, little different from the reduction of human history to a Marxist dialectic, the inhumanity of Grandpa Kim’s class system. Where real life New Orleans offers us a jazz life in all its human hues of sex, sleaze and passion, Disney offers us a mock-up, sanitised version of the Big Easy at Club 33, a member’s only joint for Japan’s corporate leaders. And it is only here, where the top show-biz stars and business moguls of the day can meet behind closed doors, away from the plebs, as genuine equals, and imbibe alcohol. The rest of us masses have to make do with carbonated caffeine pops or smuggle in whatever adult beverages we dare to get past the young Disney apparatchik, the Cast Members, as they are referred to in Disney-speak.

The Disney Finger    

Still want to know what Uncle Walt would do? Ask a Cast Member.

But we don’t even have to ask, his Cast Members don’t hesitate to impose the official interpretation of his will at every turn. If you doubt this, try as I did to carry your own child on your shoulders anywhere in Tokyo Disneyland. Within seconds, a mousist will be in your face, wagging a disproving finger displaying an iron will behind her plastic smile that you must remove that child from your shoulders, it is forbidden. This is no rogue jobs-worth, it’s policy. I tried again later in another part of the Tokyo Disneyland paradise and again was shot down, given the Disney Finger of Disapproval. The third time I tried, my own daughter was waving her finger at me, ready to conform and rat out her old man. Everyone is an informer. Even your own children. Sorry, where was I? North Korea or Tokyo?

Where North Korea has 1.1 million people in arms, Tokyo Disneyland has had 300,000 Cast Members in uniform since 1983. While such a comparison may seem facile, I think something of the “military first” doctrine that applies to North Korea is mirrored in the hearts and minds of Tokyo’s youth concerning Disney. Just as Bismarck noted with pride that conscription in Prussia, far from civilianising the army, militarised the civilians, so too the same dynamic is at work with Disney’s hold on Japan. Having so many civilians in Disney uniform did not Japanize Disneyland, it Disneyfied Japan.

Working for Disneyland is considered a dream job for many otherwise intelligent young folk. In a moment of weakness back in the 90s my wife applied for a job there. Everything was going well until the conversation turned to family.

“And what does your father do for a living?”

“Sorry?”

“What does your father do? It doesn’t say on your resume.”

“What does it matter?”

“I just want to know.”

“I’m the one applying for the job not my father.”

Any North Korean would have got it, understood the need for the question, the need to root out members of the hostile class, going back three generations. Fortunately, my wife didn’t get it, and walked out of the interview rather than answer the questions, a right that no North Korean could dare think of, let alone exercise.

Quality Not Quantity

So what’s to be taken from all these words in the great comparative ledger of Tokyo Disneyland vs. North Korea? Please allow the virtual firing squad to fire off a few bullets, and let’s see which find their mark:

• Both built on the cult of personality? Yes.

• Impossible fantasies that against the odds have become reality? Yep.

• A decades-long project to reinvent the world, against the odds? Yes, yes.

• A project whose very survival depends on covertly and overtly manipulating people’s feelings? Uh-huh.

• A success story? Yes, certainly from the point of view of the Kims, the Disneys, and their lackeys.

In fact, I can find only two significant differences. One is of quantity — as horrific as Tokyo Disneyland is, its horrors are relative rather than absolute: folk may have been gagging for a drink, but nobody has starved to death, to my knowledge, in Tokyo Disneyland, and the place has nothing as traumatic as the labour camps that dot the North Korean countryside (although the Country Bear Jamboree comes close — wash-boarding is torture, no matter what they say). These are differences of degree, not principle.

The single qualitative difference that I can see is this: sane people in possession of all relevant facts still willingly choose the Disney vision, while none, since the 1970s at least, would choose North Korea’s.

Not even Lil’ Kim. Given the choice, he’d rather be in Tokyo Disneyland. He proved that in 1991 and again in 2012.

When he couldn’t be there, he brought a little of Tokyo Disneyland to North Korea. On July 9th, 2012, he delighted North Korea watchers, if not the Disney Co. lawyers, by attending a televised show in Pyongyang featuring peons dressed in knock-off Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse costumes. Then in September, news broke that Lil’ Kim had established a DPRK Bureau of Amusement Parks. It can only be a matter of time before Pyongyang Disneyland becomes an absolute reality, though maybe not licensed to thrill.

It all goes back to the spring of 1991. The USSR collapsed, Tokyo Disneyland celebrated its 100 millionth visitor. And one of them was Lil’ Kim.

It’s a small world after all.

* * *

The boy looked around frantically. He could turn right or left through the covered walkways or go forward into the natural light from the sun.

He chose forward.

In front of him was a courtyard of concrete and there towering over it was a statue. It was a kindly man with his hand outstretched welcoming all who had entered this paradise. The boy didn’t need to ask who it was. He fell to his knees and wept. 

It was the Eternal Leader with one hand outstretched, beckoning to all the children of the world to come under his benevolent protection. And with the other, he was holding hands with someone no bigger than the boy.

It was a giant mouse.

* * *

With thanks to Dan Ryan for coming up with the fantastic title Chairman Mouse and Nancy Reed Imai for proof-reading the essay. 

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