BEIJING - North Korea is well known for
its nuclear ambitions. But it is relatively
little-known fact that the country is a hidden
outsourcing mecca for the international animation
industry, producing such well-known movies as
The Lion King.
Even while North
Korea has been under US-led sanctions that include
a ban on commercial trade, several US animated
films have allegedly been outsourced to the
country, according to Beijing-based businessman
Jing Kim, who says he was involved with American
animation producer Nelson Shin's filmmaking
business in the Stalinist
Shin, a 67-year-old
Korean-born American, is best known for the
television cartoon series The Simpsons,
which was actually drawn in Seoul by a team of
animators led by him since its premiere in 1989.
Shin and Kim first met in Singapore in
1999 at an international animation film fair,
where Kim led the North Korean delegation. There,
Shin asked Kim to help him to connect with the
North Korean animation industry, Kim said.
China-born Kim, 47, has been doing
business with North Korea for nearly 20 years and
owns a restaurant in Pyongyang. Through his
company in Singapore, where he holds a resident
permit, Kim used to sell North Korean products to
South Korea during a period when direct commerce
between the two ideologically opposed neighbors
was not possible.
After seven years of
cooperation with North Korea's state-owned SEK
Studio, employing as many as 500 North Korean
animators out of its staff of 1,500, and 18 visits
to the country, Shin finally completed Empress
Chung in 2005, a famous Korean folk tale about
a daughter who sacrifices herself to a sea monster
to restore her blind father's eyesight. It was the
first cartoon jointly produced by the two Koreas.
Apparently, however, according to Kim,
Empress Chung was not the only film made by
North Korean cartoonists. Shin, who heads
Seoul-based AKOM Production, a unit of KOAA Film
in Los Angeles, allegedly outsourced to North
Korea part of the animation contracts that his
firm had originally received from the United
On one occasion, for example,
North Korean animators employed by Shin came to
Beijing from Pyongyang to work exclusively on
several US animation movies, staying there for
months, according to Kim.
whether any of the movies were actually broadcast
in the US, Kim said, "Oh, a lot, a lot. The ones
that I participated in were as many as seven."
But Kim declined to name the US films,
citing the sanctions imposed on North Korea. "If
the names of the US companies are known, they will
be screwed," said Kim.
Kim said "many
people will be hurt" if he went into details,
adding, "We worked very carefully."
asked whether the US film companies involved
actually knew that their cartoons had been made by
North Koreans, Kim said: "They don't want to know.
If they knew, it wouldn't be fun. After they make
contracts with the South Koreans, they just assume
that it is made there. They only care about the
delivery [of the products] and their quality. It
is too much for them to ask where they were
actually made. We don't have the obligation to
tell them, either. The only thing they claim is
However, Nelson Shin
denied the allegation. "There were no American
cartoon movies made in North Korea," Shin said
from Seoul. "As far as I know, there were some
Italian and French movies made in North Korea. But
I am not aware of any American cartoons made in
Shin also noted the
technical difference of production origination
between "made in" and "made by". He took the
example of The Lion King. "It's a Disney
film. However, if Disney Europe, not the Disney
company in the US, gave North Korea the production
order, then it is not a deal placed by an
Kim in Beijing,
however, said his cooperation with Shin led them
to employ eight North Korean animators in 2005 to
come to Beijing, where the North Koreans stayed
for six months, from June 10 to November 18. That
was followed by a second group of North Korean
animators, who came to Beijing and stayed for much
of 2006, returning to Pyongyang on December 27-28,
according to Kim.
When it was noted that
Kim mentioned all these dates without referring to
any written memo, he tersely said: "That's how I
make my living."
Kim said he didn't pay
the North Korean artists in person for their work.
Rather, he wired US$170,000 to North Korea
directly for their 2006 assignments.
said most North Korean animators are highly
educated, including graduates from the prestigious
Pyongyang College of Arts.
involves the grueling job of grinding out tens of
thousands of drawings for a single 22-minute
cartoon. "They worked without complaint," Kim
said, while also praising the quality of their
work. He said hiring North Korean artists meant
that the usual company benefits, such as medical
insurance, welfare and overtime, did not need to
"It's a system that is
doable," Kim said.
North Korea's cartoon
industry has become quite sophisticated as a
result of its cooperation with France and Italy in
their animation projects since 1983. North Korea's
animation skills now rank among the world's best,
"They are highly talented.
That's something I can say," said Shin in Seoul.
South Korea itself was once the largest
supplier of television animation in the world
during its peak in the 1990s, churning out more
than 1,000 half-hour episodes. However, its status
has since declined with the rise of labor costs
there, pushing animation companies to find
alternatives such as India, the Philippines and
North Korea. The Chronicles of Narnia, for
example, used Indian animators for some
characters. It's unclear how much North Korea
contributes to the world animation market today.
Meanwhile, when asked about the similarity
of cartoon characters between Empress Chung
and the ones seen in recent US animation movies,
Shin said, "It's inconvenient to talk about it on
However, Shin said he is
working on a new joint North-South Korea animation
movie called Goguryeo, the title a
reference to an ancient Korean kingdom that
existed until AD 68. He expects it will take about
two years to complete.
is a journalist based in Beijing, where he has
lived for five years. A native of South Korea, Lee
is a graduate of Harvard University and Beijing
Foreign Studies University.