Archive for the ‘Animation’ Category

Graphic Novel Depicts Surreal North Korea

Friday, October 13th, 2006

Morning Edition

When North Korea recently opened the door to foreign investment, cartoonist Guy Delisle became one of the few Westerners to witness current conditions in the capital city of Pyongyang. Delisle found himself in the city on a work visa for a French film animation company.

Delisle could only explore Pyongyang and its countryside if he was accompanied by his translator and a guide. Among the statues, portraits and propaganda of leaders Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il, Delisle observed the culture and lives of the few North Koreans he encountered. His musings on life in the regime form the basis of the graphic novel: Pyongyang: A Journey to North Korea.

Steve Inskeep speaks with Delisle about his work, his choice of coloring in his novel and what he really thinks is going on inside the heads of North Korean citizens.

There are two great audio clips, so click here to hear them.


North Korea: an upcoming software destination

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

Paul Tija
GPI Consultancy
October 10, 2006

IN PDF: IT_in_NKorea.pdf

Surprising business opportunities in Pyongyang

Dutch companies are increasingly conducting Information Technology projects in low-cost countries. Also known as offshore sourcing, this way of working means that labor-intensive activities, such as the programming of computer software, are being done abroad. Asia is the most popular software destination, and Indian IT firms are involved in large projects for Dutch enterprises such as ANB Amro Bank, KLM, Philips or Heineken. More recently, we notice a growth in the software collaboration with China.

As a Dutch IT consultant, I am specialized in offshore software development projects, and I regularly travel to India and China. Recently, I was invited for a study tour to an Asian country which I had never visited before: North Korea. I had my doubts whether to accept this invitation. After all, when we read about North Korea, it is mostly not about its software capabilities. The current focus of the press is on its nuclear activities and it is a country where the Cold War has not even ended, so I was not sure if such a visit would be useful. And finally, such a trip to a farshore country would at least take a week.

Nevertheless, I decided to visit this country. This decision was mainly based on what I had seen in China. I had already traveled to China five times this year, and the fast growth of China as a major IT destination was very clear to me. China is now the production factory of the world, but China’s software industry has emerged to become a global player in just 5 years. Several of the largest Indian IT service providers, including TCS, Infosys, Wipro and Satyam, have established their offices in China, taking advantage of the growing popularity of this country. However, I also noticed that some Chinese companies themselves are outsourcing IT work to neighboring North Korea. And since my profession is being an offshore consultant, I have no choice but to investigate these new trends in country selection, so I accepted the invitation to visit Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. I happened to be the first Dutch consultant to research the North Korean IT-sector ever, and the one-week tour turned out to be extremely interesting. Quite surprisingly, the country offers interesting business opportunities for European companies.

Korea Computer Center
My study tour was organized by KCC (Korea Computer Center), the largest IT-company in the country. Established in 1990, it is state-owned and has more than one thousand employees. It is headquartered in Pyongyang and has regional branches in eleven cities. My accommodation has been arranged at the KCC campus, which comprises of several office buildings. It also has iown hostel, with a swimming pool, for foreign guests. These guests are mainly Asian (during my stay, there were Chinese delegations), so I had to get used to having rice for breakfast. In the evenings, the restaurant doubled as a karaoke bar, and some of the waitresses appeared to be talented singers. The campus is located in a rather attractive green area, and the butterflies flying around were the largest I had ever seen. It also has sporting grounds, and basketball was during my one-week visit the most popular game among KCC staff. An internal competition takes place during lunch hours.

Korea Computer Center is organized in different specialized business units. Before their representatives started with presentations, I received a tour through the premises. As is the case in India and China, the programmers at KCC also work in cubicles. KCC develops various software products, of which some are especially designed for the local market. Examples are a Korean version of Linux and translation software between Korean, Japanese, Chinese and English. They also produce software for Korean character and handwriting recognition and voice recognition. Other products are made for export, and North Korean games to be used on mobile phones are already quite popular in Japan. There are also games for PC’s, Nintendo and Playstation; their computer version of Go, an Asian chess game, has won the world championship for Go games for several years. The games department has a display showing all the trophies which were won during international competitions.

For several years, KCC is active as an offshore services provider and it works for clients in China, South Korea and Japan. For these markets, North Korea is a nearshore destination, and quite a few North Korean IT-staff do speak Chinese or Japanese. KCC also has branch offices in various Chinese cities, including Beijing and Dalian. It works for both foreign software product companies and end user firms, such as banks. For these clients, different types of applications have been developed, for example in the field of finance, security or Human Resources. Europe is a relatively new market for the North Koreans, and some of their products have been showed for the first time at the large international IT-exhibition CeBIT, in 2006 in Hannover, Germany.

The level of IT-expertise was high, with attention to quality through the use of ISO9001, CMMI and Six Sigma. KCC develops embedded software for the newest generation of digital television, for multimedia-players and for PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistants). Surprisingly, it also produces the software for the mobile phones of South Korean Samsung. I was shown innovative software which could recognize music by humming a few sounds. In less than a second, the melody was recognized from a database of more than 500 songs. Also applications for home use were developed, such as accessing the Internet by using a mobile phone to adjust the air conditioning. KCC also Photo: KCC campus in Pyongyang made software to recognize faces on photographs and video films. They gave me demonstrations of video-conferencing systems, and applications for distance learning. There was a separate medical department, which made software to be used by hospitals and doctors, such as systems to check the condition of heart and blood vessels.

Supply of IT-labor In countries such as The Netherlands, the enrollment in courses in Information Technology is not popular anymore among the youth, and a shortage of software engineers is expected. This situation is different in many offshore countries, where a career in IT is very ‘cool’. Also in North Korea, large numbers of students have an interest to study IT. I visited in Pyongyang the large Kim Chaek University of Technology, where there are much more applications, than available places. Although my visit took place during the summer holiday, there were still students around at the faculty of Informatics. In order to gain experience, they were conducting projects for foreign companies. I spoke with students who were programming computer games or were developing software for PDA’s. A large pool of technically qualified workforce is now available in North Korea. Some of the staff is taking courses abroad and foreign teachers (e.g. from India) are regularly invited to teach classes in Pyongyang.

Business Process Outsourcing
Some companies in Pyongyang are involved in activities in the field of BPO (Business Process Outsourcing), an areas which includes various kinds of administrative work. Because of the available knowledge of the Japanese language, the North Koreans are offering back-office services to western companies engaged in doing business with Japan.

In order to get an understanding of this type of work, I visited Dakor, which was established 10 years ago in cooperation with a Swiss firm. This joint venture is located at the opposite side of Pyongyang, across the Taedong river. It works for European research companies, and it receives from them scanned survey forms electronically on a daily basis. It processes these papers and returns the results within 48 hours to their clients. The company is also conducting data-entry work for international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Red Cross. Their data, which is stored on paper only, is being made available for use online. Dakor is also offering additional services, such as producing 2D and 3D designs for architectural firms, and it is also programming websites.

North Korea is already famous as a production location for high quality cartoons and animation. Staff of the American Walt Disney Corporation described the country as one of the most talented centers of animation in the world. The specialized state corporation SEK Studio has more than 1500 employees, and works for several European producers of children films. New companies are being founded as well, and I visited Tin Ming Alan CG Studio. This firm was set up in early 2006, and is located in a new office building in the outskirts of Pyongyang. Its main focus is in Computer Graphics and in 2D and 3D animation it uses the latest hardware and software, including Maja. Some of the staff of Tin Ming Alan speak Chinese and the company has a marketing office in China. They are hired by Chinese advertisement companies to make the animation for TV-commercials. It also works on animation to be included in computer games.  Several employees of this young company come from other animation studios and have more than ten years of experience in this field.

The North Korean IT sector seems to be dynamic, where new firms are being established, and where business units of larger organizations are being spun-off into new ventures. I visited the Gwang Myong IT Center, which is a spin-off from Korea Computer Center. It is specialized in network software and security, and it produces anti-virus, data encryption, data recovery, and fingerprint software. This firmis internationally active as well; it has an office in China and among its clients are financial institutions in Japan.

Issues of country selection
My study tour revealed that North Korea has specific advantages. The local tariffs are lower than in India or China, thus giving western firms the option of considerable cost reductions. The commitment of North Korean IT-firms is also high, and the country is therefore also an offshore option for especially smaller or medium sized western software companies. Outsourcing work to North Korea could also be used to foster innovation (e.g. developing better products or new applications). This country can be used for research as well (from Linux to parallel processing).  Based from my interaction with Korean managers and software engineers, I do not believe that the cultural differences are larger than with China or India. My communication with them, both formal and informal, was pleasant. Communicating with North Koreans is clearly less difficult than with Japanese.

The North Korean companies have experiences with a wide range of development platforms. They work with Assembler, Cobol, C, Visual Studio .Net, Visual C/C++, Visual Basic, Java, JBuilder, Powerbuilder, Delphi, Flash, XML, Ajax, PHP, Perl, Oracle, SQL Server, MySQL, etc. They can do development work for administrative applications, but also technical software, such as embedded software or PLC’s. North Korea is very advanced in areas such as animation and games, and I have seen a range of titles, including table tennis, chess, golf, or beach volley. The design of many of their applications was modern and according to the western taste.

Over the recent years, North Korea is opening up for foreign business. This process makes offshore sourcing easier, and even investing in an own software subsidiary or joint venture can be considered. This does not mean that North Korea is potential software destination for every user of offshore services. The country is a subject of international political tensions. In addition, a number of circumstances require specific attention, such as the command of the English Language.  As is the case with China, the North Korean IT staff are able to read english bu thtey do not speak it very well.  Another issue is the relative isolation of the country, and in order to arrange an invitation, a visa is required.  The limited number of direct flights is another disadvantage; one can only travel directly from Beijing or Moscow.  If projects will require a lot of communication or knowledge transfer, it might be recommended to do some parts of the work in China, by the Chinese branches of the North Korean companies. Executing a small pilot project is the best way to investigate the opportunities in more detail.

North Korea has a large number of skilled IT professionals, and it has a high level of IT expertise in various areas.  The country is evolving into a nearshore software destination for a growing number of clients from Japan, China and South Korea. An interesting example of their success is the work they are doing for South Korean giant Samsung, in the field of embedded software for mobile phones.

North Korean IT-companies are now also targeting the European market, and the low tariffs and the available skills are major advantages.  Smaller and medium sized software companies can consider this country as a potential offshore destination, and should research the opportunities for collaboration or investment in more detail. Taking part in a study tour, as I have done, is an excellent way to get more insight in the actual business opportunities of a country – not only in the case of North Korea but for all nearshore and farshore destinations.

Paul Tija is the founder of GPI Consultancy, an independent Dutch Consultancy firm in the in the field of offshore IT sourcing. E-mail: [email protected]
GPI Consultancy, Postbus 26151, 3002 ED Rotterdam
Tel: +31-10-4254172 E-mail: [email protected]


ROK reaches out to DPRK on agriculture and animation

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

Joong Ang Daily:
Lee Ho-jeong

Kim Moon-soo, Gyeonggi province governor, said yesterday that the provincial government is working on two projects in cooperation with North Korea.

Mr. Kim spoke at a press conference in Seoul entitled “Gyeonggi province opens the future of Korea.”

According to the Gyeonggi governor, the first project is called, “Gyeonggi-Pyongyang Rice Farming Project.” The site of the project is Danggok near Pyongyang, North Korea.

The project helps North Korean farmers advance their farming technology in crop harvesting by providing tractors and other advanced farming tools. In addition, the project provides humanitarian assistance such as health care and day care centers.

The second project is enhancing cooperation in the field of film animation.

“North Korean’s animation skills rank among the world’s best, but they lack infrastructure and technology,” Mr. Kim said. In the project, North Korean animators are teamed with South Korean animation film production companies to produce an animated film.

Mr. Kim said the cooperative effort will also contribute to improving humanitarian problems in North Korea.

The governor also said Gyeonggi province is taking steps to increase foreign investment in the region.

“My predecessor, Sohn Hak-kyu, has done a wonderful job drawing foreign investment that helps to illuminate Gyeonggi province,” Mr. Kim said.

The governor said that to draw more foreign investment, the provincial government has to strengthen incentives. For example, public servants who bring in foreign investment will receive a bonus of 200 million won ($211,860). And if a foreign private business is brought in, the bonus is 300 million won.

In addition, Mr. Kim said the Gyeonggi government will reduce the regulations and simplify rules.

The governor has appointed a Samsung Electronics official as the provincial government’s counselor on foreign investment and established a private counseling committee consisting of 20 private entrepreneurs.

The governor also stressed that the free trade agreement now being negotiated between Korea and the United States will be a huge help for foreign investment.


Foreign investors brave North Korea

Tuesday, April 13th, 2004

Lucy Jones

“Got any nuclear weapons for sale?” is the response Briton Roger Barrett usually gets when he tells people at Beijing cocktail parties that he invests in North Korea.
The country’s admission to a nuclear weapons programme and its listing on George W Bush’s “axis of evil” means most people are staying well away.

But Mr Barrett, 49, a former troop commander in the British army who has 10 years experience of doing business in North Korea, recently opened a branch of his consultancy firm, Korea Business Consultants, in Pyongyang.

A self-confessed “business adventurer”, he says there is growing interest in the country after Chairman Kim Jong-il introduced economic reforms in 2002.

It’s like China in the eighties… The market reforms are very evident. It’s an exciting time to join the market.

Robert Barrett, Korea Business Consultants 
He is also the enthusiastic publisher of what must be North Korea’s only business publication – the DPRK Business News Bulletin – which features some of the 250 companies he advises.

“It’s like China in the eighties… The market reforms are very evident. It’s an exciting time to join the market,” he says.

Mr Barrett is not alone.

Even in the middle of a nuclear crisis there are foreign investors in the country, and their numbers are increasing.

They say North Korea is a mineral rich country that needs everything and insist they have to get there first.

They also believe the 2002 economic reform is for real and that the country is gradually moving towards becoming a market economy.


The little data there is on the country’s economy is hardly encouraging, though.

There has been a devastating famine and the UN says malnutrition is still widespread.

There are chronic heating and water shortages, and most North Koreans are paid less than £5 a month.

The country also has an appalling human rights record.

A BBC documentary on the country’s gulags this year contained allegations that chemical experiments are being carried out on political prisoners.

Meanwhile, the US says it is “highly likely” that North Korea is involved in state-sponsored trafficking of heroin.

In the political arena, the second round of six-nation talks aimed at resolving the nuclear crisis ended in Beijing in February without agreement, which means US and Japanese sanctions will remain in place.
‘Communism’ tourism

But the foreign entrepreneurs in North Korea are not put off.

Some are helped by UN employees who have worked in Pyongyang (among the few people to have had contact with the regime there) and many have a track record in China.

Pack a torch, conduct business meetings on the street to avoid big brother listening in and have plenty of “Asian patience” for the endless red-tape, they advise.

An Austrian company is reportedly buying pianos from the North Koreans, a French television station uses North Korean artists to produce cartoons, while a Singapore-based firm is developing forestry and tourism.

The Singaporeans intend to offer “adventure” stays on their North Korean forestry plantations.

Meanwhile, Western tourist agencies are gearing up to offer the last chance to see communism in action, and Fila and Heineken have reportedly entered into sponsorship deals with the North Korean regime.

North Korean labour

A German, Jan Holtermann owner of the computer firm KCC Europe, is putting North Korea online.

He hopes that by being there first he will be able to eventually tap into North Korean computer talent.

The country’s small number of internet users currently dial-up to Chinese providers, a costly process at about £1 a minute.

Mr Holtermann’s customers, who he hopes will number 2,000 by the end of the year, will have unlimited access for £400 a month.

As only a few North Koreans are permitted to have telephones, and as the internet service is costly, Mr Holtermann expects his customers to be government ministries, news agencies and aid organisations.

He has invested £530,000 in the venture, intending to get first pick when North Korean software programmers come onto the market.

“They are very talented,” he says.

“It’s this capacity we want to sell in Europe.”

The parcel delivery company DHL has operated in Pyongyang since 1997, when it was invited there by the government, and now has North Korean light manufacturing, textile and beverage companies on its books.

It sees itself as contributing to the country’s “slow but increasingly visible” economic reform programme.

British consultants

Former bank employee Mr Barrett is convinced North Korea is opening up much quicker than people think.

There are opportunities in banking, minerals, agriculture and telecommunications, he insists.

“There is the odd story of something going wrong,” he says.

“But when you walk around you notice construction going on.

“The people are feeling a change.”

High level contacts

But how to do business with one of the most isolationist regimes on earth?

Contacts are essential, say businessmen.

Though even knowing a North Korean minister is not enough, says Gerald Khor of Singapore-based forestry company Maxgro Holdings.

“You have to go above the ministers to the cabinet. You don’t have to know a member but you need to know people who can influence them,” he says.

“It is very important to get the favour of the dear leader (Kim Jong-il). Because when he says something, it gets done.”

Through a former UN employee, Maxgro got Kim Jong-il’s attention and has invested $2m in forestry, agreeing the state gets 30% of the profits.

“Kim Jong-il is an environmentalist,” Mr Khor says.

“We are confident we’ll get a return.

“We have dwindling supplies and this is high quality wood.”

To locate the forests elsewhere would cost much more, he adds.

Forced to change

Economic reforms introduced by the government in 2002 are seen as the first move away from central planning since the country adopted communism in 1945.

The government has been forced to change in order to survive, especially now it can no longer barter with Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, experts say.

“There is no real option not to carry out these reforms,” says UK-based Keith Bennett, who has taken trade missions to Pyongyang.

“But people don’t know where they will lead.

Chinese leaders have impressed on Kim Jong-il that there can be economic reform without fundamental political change.”

Way up on North Korea’s border with Russia and China is the Tumen economic zone, which was established in 1991 with UN help to lure investors.

The project has only had limited success and may indicate the type of problems those investing elsewhere in North Korea may face.

The North Korean section of the zone, Rajin-Songbong, hosts foreign-run hotels, telecommunications and restaurants, but that is about all.

“The North Koreans have sometimes been very co-operative and sometimes not, maybe because of policy change,” says Tsogtsaikhan Gombo, from the UN’s development agency.

“They were also disappointed when they didn’t see the investment.”

Vibrant Chinese economic zones nearby have put up fierce competition.

But even opening the door just slightly to let in capitalism has greatly improved the lives of the 150,000 people living in the zone, says Mr Gombo.

And many foreigners insist that small investments elsewhere in the country may have similar results.