Axis of ... cute?
By Aidan Foster-Carter

North Korea never ceases to surprise, even to amaze. Nor is it in all aspects quite so cut off from global trends as we tend to think. True, not a lot that Pyongyang produces is of a quality to be readily salable worldwide. Among the better known exceptions are missiles. Among the less well known are cartoons.

What's more, you've seen them. So cunning is this axis of evil, it's even infiltrated Hollywood. Yup, we're talking Disney. Pocahontas? The Lion King? Both of these used North Korean animation skills: presumably on a subcontracting basis, as otherwise they'd fall foul of the Trading with the Enemy Act. Europe has no such restrictions, so French and Italian producers have been getting cartoons made in Pyongyang since the mid-1980s. Recent titles include an Italian Hercules, and France's Billy the Cat.

North Korea's center of excellence here is the April 26 Children's Film Production House - or more succinctly SEK Studio, which is how you'll see it billed in credits. According to Hong Mee-yeon of the Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo, there is no single training institute. Animation is taught at such top schools as Kim Il Sung University, Pyongyang University of Computer Technology, and Kim Chaek Technology University. Kim Chaek is working on 3D computer animation, newly added to the repertoire alongside traditional methods: cell animation, stop motion (clay and rubber figures), and - cheapest - paper dolls.

SEK's six studios earn useful hard currency for Kim Jong-il, as well as producing for the home market. You'd imagine the latter would be heavily ideological, like North Korean theater and movies proper. Sure enough, the first 3D feature for local consumption - Three Friends in Fantasyland, released in June - is about "the need to work hard to acquire in-depth knowledge of science and technology to contribute to one's country instead of blindly craving success". Wake me up when it's over, okay?

But this is an exception. Most North Korean cartoons are straightforwardly cutesy tales about cuddly animals, with names like Twinkle Bell and Exaggerating Bear. I imagine him as Yogi's cousin: permed hair, sunglasses, built-up heels, going around saying "Our country is paradise" to raucous snorts from the other animals - whom he then sends off to starve in the cold mountains. Remind you of anyone?

Only kidding, kiddies. Check it out for yourselves. Both the JoongAng and Chosun Ilbo websites have a selection of North Korean cartoons. I couldn't make them run on my computer, doubtless owing to chronic affliction with what a North Korean text about industrialization nicely named "mystery over machine".

According to Ms Hong of the JoongAng, most North Korean cartoons are non-political. For that reason adults watch them too, as a rare chance to relax. Or if didactic, their themes are universal (good vs evil) and resonate on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) also. In a report to the South Korean unification ministry last year, a Seoul researcher, Dr Oh Gi-sung, praised the educational value to the young of their stress on "loyalty, filial piety, wisdom and courage", and called on the authorities to distribute them widely in the south. Already as of May South Koreans can buy the book. Seoul's Duree Media has a deal to distribute the North's Clever Raccoon series: a 40-part educational cartoon using animals to explain basic science. "A brilliant piece of work," gushes Duree, which has bought sole rights to the series for the next 10 years.

The obvious next step is co-production. Cue Lazy Cat Dinga - if you can find where he's dozing. This 3D cousin to Garfield, a joint venture between Hanaro Telecom and the North's Samcholli, debuted last year - but not in North Korea, where laziness is verboten. A hit in the South, Dinga has his own website (mydinga.com) and a range of merchandise. A licensing contract in May with Hong Kong's Medialink means the fatigued feline will soon be airing there, plus in Singapore and Malaysia. (Check with your kids.) Hanaro is also chasing deals in Japan, China, France, Italy, Spain and Belgium.

This wasn't plain sailing. The JV was signed in February 2001; but Hanaro made some initial episodes alone, and later held talks to rescue the project - successfully, it seems. Kim Jong-sae, Hanaro's team head, noted cultural clashes ranging from the length of his own hair - he trimmed it before his second trip - to explaining to the Northern designers such unfamiliar concepts as hamburgers, theme parks, and Santa Claus (think Kim Il-sung in fancy dress, surely?). The cost: a modest US$190,000 for 18 episodes.

This sentimental side of North Korea makes a nice change from all the militancy. Better yet, as well as exporting fairy tales, they're now importing other people's. Last October KCBS (the North's TV) began airing weekly readings from Grimm's fairy tales and Alice in Wonderland. Some foreign cartoons and books of this ilk had been available since the early 1980s, but this was the first time on national TV.

Alice, eh? Subversive stuff, when you already live in a looking-glass world. What must North Koreans make of such gems as: "Sentence first, verdict afterwards ... It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place… Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." Then again, it may sound only too normal. Yet this is all to the good. More Grimm means less grim.

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Nov 13, 2002


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