US cartoons ‘made in North Korea’

Asia Times
Sunny Lee

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 pariah state.

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 States.

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.

When asked 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.”

When 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 the copyright.”

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 North Korea.”

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 ‘American’ company.”

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.

Kim said most North Korean animators are highly educated, including graduates from the prestigious Pyongyang College of Arts.

Animation 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 be provided.

“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, experts say.

“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 the phone.”

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.


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