SEOUL— ”Far, far away, unknown and untouched by human civilization, lies a peaceful island covered in snow and ice. On this white island, deep inside a small secluded forest, is a tiny village inhabited by little animals. No one knows how they came to live on the island, but they naturally came to live together in the village situated in the little valley where the sunshine is warmest and the cold wind is least harsh.”
Thus begins the wildly popular South Korean cartoon series “Pororo the Little Penguin”—whose heroes and catchy theme are omnipresent throughout South Korea. Less widely known, however, is that the series has been produced in part by highly skilled animators in neighboring rival North Korea, one of the most isolated, impoverished, and technologically backward countries on Earth.
Already suffering severe cash and food shortages since the mid-1990s, North Korea drew an international outcry and mandatory U.N. sanctions when it tested a nuclear device Oct. 9. And yet the world's most reclusive country has meanwhile emerged over the last decade as a significant player in the global business of animation and cinema—exporting cartoons throughout Asia, Europe, and North America.
The first time I watched North Korean animation, I simply thought that if we tried our best, there might be a possibility to work together, but I had no idea North Koreans would turn out to be such outstanding animators.
Analysts say Pyongyang’s animation expertise likely reflects the patronage and personal involvement of the country's all-powerful leader Kim Jong Il, a noted film aficionado whose personal video collection is said to comprise tens of thousands of titles.
Even in conditions of extreme economic hardship, sometimes famine, the North Korean film industry is believed to produce around 60 movies a year. Kim's government has concentrated on exporting cartoons and feature films abroad, contacting potential buyers and inviting representatives from the film industry to the Pyongyang Film Festival every other year.
Choi Jong-Il, President of Iconix Entertainment, the Seoul-based company that makes “Pororo,” described North Korean animation as “robust.”
“North Korea employs animation to deliver various messages to the public, and North Korean animators have been sub-contracted by Japanese and European companies. That is why technically they are strong.”
Media experts say North Korean production values are top quality. The state-run SEK studio is one of the largest in the world, employing 1,600 staff working with state-of-the-art equipment.
Among its clients are the Korean-American studio KOAA, for whom SEK worked on a U.S. $6.5 million feature titled Empress Chung. Another North Korean studio, Samcholli, helped produce “Lazy Cat Dinga” for Hanaro Telecom.
Iconix trained the North Koreans in 3D animation, Choi said, adding, “They were very quick learners. If they find a way to solve their managerial and communication issues, I see a possibility that they might catch up with South Korean animators within the next decade or so.”
SEK studios in Pyongyang animated 10 or 52 episodes of the first season of “Pororo,” he said, but Iconix found communications with their North Korean collaborators too cumbersome to continue.
“To come up with work plans, one needs a steady flow of communication, but communication with North Korea has been very difficult,” Choi said. “Short of traveling there, the best one can do is to communicate via fax, but they’re not very enthusiastic about doing that either. This wouldn’t necessarily be a huge problem, if we could travel to North Korea freely, as we do to other countries.”
Iconix, whose productions have won recognition at animation festivals in France, Italy, and Latin America, isn’t the first animation house to draw on talent from the isolated Stalinist state, according to reports.
“The first time I watched North Korean animation, I simply thought that if we tried our best, there might be a possibility to work together, but I had no idea North Koreans would turn out to be such outstanding animators,” said Nelson Shin, founder and president of Seoul-based Akom Production Co., Ltd.
Shin has worked on animated television series including “The Simpsons,” “The Pink Panther,” “X-Men,” “Invasion America,” and “Arthur” and has directed “The Transformers” and “Transformers: the Movie.” Shin is also credited with creating the glowing light-saber used by Jedi Knights in the “Star Wars” epic.
Shin’s latest North-South co-production is 39-episode animated TV series titled “The People of Koguryo,” already approved by the North Korean Ministry of Culture and the South Korean Ministry of Unification.
Koguryo was ancient Korea's most prosperous and powerful kingdom, located mainly in what is now North Korea. Founded in 37 BC, Koguryo was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, along with Baekje and Shilla. Koguryo was a major East Asian power until it was defeated by a Shilla-Tang alliance in AD 668.
“Speaking about North Korean animation generally implies a negative nuance, but that should not at all be the case,” Shin said. “With South and North Korean animators working together, there are no misunderstandings or miscommunication. For three years, South and North Korean animators worked hard together and conversed well. The North Koreans displayed admirable skills and performed competently. Communication was very good and the products of the North Korean animators impressive.”
In 2004, German journalist Christhard Lapple visited the SEK studio in Pyongyang, reporting that “Pororo” and other international animation projects are regularly subcontracted there. These include Disney feature films The Lion King and Pocahontas , as well as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The North Korean industry appears to have shadowed its southern counterparts with a time-lag of several decades. South Korean animation evolved from equipment left behind by the Americans after the 1950-53 Korean War, beginning with a few short clips made for advertisements.
Shin Dong-hun directed the peninsula’s first animated feature film, Hong Gil Dong , in 1967. But the industry didn’t really take off until the 1970s, which was followed by a smaller boom around the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
In 1994, the government recognized the industry’s economic potential and started to promote it. By the late 1990s, South Korea accounted for half of the worldwide subcontracting market, working for clients in the United States, Europe and Japan.
Original reporting by Wonhee Lee for RFA’s Korean service. Service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Edited by Sooil Chun. Translation from the Korean by Greg Scarlatoiu, with additional research and translation by Tom Hallewell, Francesca Mengarelli, Vanessa Schneider, Claudia Kettmann, and Joe Zhou. Written and produced in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.