Nuclear-armed North Korea is notorious for selling its missiles overseas but the hardline communist state also has a more improbable export — cute cartoon figures.
South Korean experts say the North’s animated movie industry brings the isolated country both precious hard currency and access to global IT expertise.
“Animation is one of the rare sectors where North Korea is following the global trend,” said Lee Kyo-Jung, an executive at the Korea Animation Producers’ Association (KAPA).
“It has been subcontracted to produce animation for North America, Europe and Asia,” Lee told AFP. Among the major clients are studios in France, Italy and China, he added.
Lee has visited the North to discuss the feasibility of the two Koreas jointly producing animated features, with North Koreans providing manpower and the South supplying equipment and finance.
The North for decades has used cartoons to imbue its own children with socialist ethics. Other cartoons screened there also bring some fun into drab everyday life.
“Tom and Jerry” is a prime-time hit in the communist state, Lee said. “They just love it. They see the US in the headstrong cat and North Korea in the wise mouse.”
The centre of North Korea’s animation industry is the April 26 Children’s Film Production House, known to the outside as SEK Studio. Its 1,600 animators have been downsized to 500 with the introduction of computerised equipment.
“SEK is one of the largest hard currency earners in North Korea,” said Nelson Shin, a North Korea-born US producer who worked on “The Simpsons”.
“SEK is a rare North Korean company that can directly engage in foreign trade and deploys representatives overseas,” said Shin, a frequent visitor to the North.
The state-run company worked for Shin’s US-South Korean studio KOAA Films on his 6.5-million-dollar animated feature “Empress Chung,” a Korean equivalent of the Cinderella story.
The movie was screened simultaneously in Seoul and Pyongyang in August 2005, becoming the first feature film jointly produced by the two nations.
“I was taken by surprise at their manual skill. I dare say the North Koreans are better than their peers in the South in terms of their hand skills,” Shin said.
Shin said Disney had subcontracted the TV series made for European viewers of the “Lion King” and “Pocahontas” to SEK.
North Korea’s animation industry began years before South Korea’s own in the mid-1960s. It dates back to the mid-1950s when it sent young artists to what was then Czechoslovakia to learn the craft, according to Lee of KAPA.
But South Korea has come from behind on the strength of its plentiful animators and computer technology. It earned some 120 million dollars through subcontracted work when the subcontract trade was at its peak in 1997.
Latecomers China, Vietnam and India are taking a growing share of the subcontracting market while South Korea is graduating from the labour-intensive work into creative products.
The growth in North Korean animation reflects the patronage of all-powerful leader Kim Jong-Il, a movie buff whose personal archive is said to comprise tens of thousand of films.
The country, becoming priced out of the lower-end work by latecomers, is now seeking to go upmarket to focus more on computer-assisted animation.
“For North Koreans, animation is not only a source of hard currency but also technology from the outside world. They are really keen on obtaining things like graphics technology,” said Kim Jong-Se, marketing director of Iconix Entertainment.
Iconix trained North Koreans in 3D animation when it subcontracted work to a company called Samcholli. The firm produced part of a cartoon series entitled “Pororo the Little Penguin” in 2003 and 2005.
The series turned out to be a big hit, selling in more than 40 countries.
Kim in late 2001 also helped produce “Lazy Cat Dinga,” the first animated series short of a full-length movie co-produced by the two Koreas.
“North Koreans are very good at doing what they are told but they have problems in using creativity,” Kim said.
Iconix Entertainment CEO Choi Jong-Il said both sides could benefit from splitting their roles.
“Joint projects will certainly bring benefits to both sides, with the South doing the overall planning and the North carrying out the main production,” said Choi.