Archive for the ‘Animation’ Category

DPRK animators join industry fair in China

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014


Pictured Above (Google Earth): SEK Studios in Pyongyang

According to Yonhap:

North Korean animation films have been put on display at an international animation fair in China, with a North Korean official admitting that the country’s animators have been increasingly sub-contracted by foreign studios, according to a Chinese state media report on Wednesday.

About 200 companies from South Korea, North Korea, Australia, Canada, Japan, Russia and other nations joined the five-day animation fair in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei, starting Tuesday, the China News Service said.

North Korea’s state-run SEK studio set up a special exhibition hall at the fair, according to the report.

Ho Yong-chol, head of SEK’s office in Beijing, told the Chinese media that the SEK studio employs more than 1,500 animators and has “an annual production of up to 8,000 minutes” of animated films.

“OEM (overseas export market) has become a main source of productions for North Korean animation studios,” Ho said, adding that the North can produce an animated film with “even less than half” of a European studio’s budget.

North Korea has quietly developed its animation industry. One of South Korea’s popular animation films, “Pororo the Little Penguin,” was produced jointly with North Korean cartoonists.

Read the full story here:


Interesting weekend fare: Cars, cola, Disney, history, and lift troubles

Sunday, November 6th, 2011


Uriminzokkiri posted this short video of rush-hour traffic in Pyongyang (YouTube):

I will leave it up to the reader to determine if the video was staged. What is more interesting to me is to see the variety of vehicles used in the shots.  I saw at least one American Dodge Van in the footage (similar to the one I saw parked next to the Pueblo in 2005).  If you know a lot about cars, feel free to try identifying other vehicles in the footage.

And continuing on the automotive front–a tourist to the DPRK took this picture in September 2010:

The picture above is of an American-made, petrol-guzzling “Hummer H2” (MSRP in 2008 – USD$53,286; 10 mpg-US; 24 L/100 km; 12 mpg-imp). The license plate on the vehicle is 평양 22-2722.

In September 2011, Eric Lafforgue took the picture below of what appears to be a second Hummer on the streets of the DPRK.

The license plate on this vehicle is “23-199”. I cannot read the city name on the plate.  According to the photographer:

During my stay in North Korea, i [sp] saw 2 Hummer cars. This is the fist time i [sp] hear north korean people making cristisms about something in their country! They all told me it was a shame to see such a car in North Korea, as it needs lot of fuel. Some people told me that the car number tells that it belongs to a local media (press or tv).


Mr. Lafforgue has also brought up another interesting topic through his pictures: North Korea’s cola wars!


On the left is a Picture of Cocoa “crabonated drink” [sp] taken by Eric Lafforgue in 2008.  On the right is a picture of  “코코아 탄산단물” (Translation: “Cocoa Carbonated Drink”) taken by Eric Lafforgue in September 2011.

I might have been inclined to believe they were the same product with different labels (and maybe they are?), however, they appear to be manufactured by different companies.  The cola on the left is manufactured by a company called “룡진” (Ryongjin), a company about which I cannot find any additional information, and the beverage on the right is manufactured by “모란봉” (Moranbong).  I presume that “Moranbong” is actually the Moranbong Carbonated Fruit Juice J.V. Company. According to Naenara:

Moranbong Carbonated Fruit Juice J.V. Company
Add: Taedonggang District, Pyongyang, DPR Korea
Fax: 850-2-381-4410

The company formed in 2004 produces a wide assortment of carbonated fruit juice and health drink.

It has an affiliated factory equipped with hi-tech facilities that conform to hygienic requirements of GMP, ranging from production of bottles and drinks to packing.

Its products include apple, grape, peach, orange, cocoa, lemon and strawberry carbonated juices.

A multifunctional super-antioxidant health drink “Pirobong” is a drawing card in the world market.

The company will steadily increase investment in the development of new brand of drinks and further promote exchange and collaboration with partners across the world.

So why does the DPRK produce competing colas? Wouln’t that be wasteful duplication of processes? No.  Monopolys are generally more wasteful than competitive firms. Though in the past there were few producers of carbonated drinks in the DPRK (Ryongsong Food Factory, Kyongryon Patriotic Soda Factory), the DPRK seems to have moved away from near-monopoly production to a more competitive industrial organization in the production of soda.

Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyong-hui (KKH), is director of the Light Industry Department in the Worker’s Party and as a result holds all colas in her job portfolio. Without having any special data on the DPRK’s cola market, I would speculate that KKH promotes competition between the different soda producers to increase efficiency and profits for the ultimate goal of improving the positions of her discretionary official and unofficial budgets.

As an aside, earlier this year Forbes ran a story about meetings held between the DPRK’s Taepung International Investment Group and Coca Cola. Taephing is directed by Jang Song-thaek, Kim Kyong-hui’s husband.


In the past I have pointed out the appearance of Disney characters on North Korean apparel (see here for example). Now they are showing up on mobile phones:

History 1

Here is a video of Lim Su-kyung in Pyongyang (1989). Here is a story about her in the Daily NK. I think I just found her Facebook profile!


History 2

Here is a map of Pyongyang produced int he 1800s.  Other maps of the region here. Hat tip to Kwang On Yoo.


Lift troubles

Here is a 30+ minute video shot in Pyongyang–nearly entirley in the dark. Hat tip to Leonid Petrov.

The video caption reads: “We were touring the 3 Revolutions Exhibition in Pyongyang in 2009, when our elevator lost all power and 11 of us were stuck in blackness, hanging by a North Korean thread.”


Friday Grab bag: a little bit of everything

Friday, June 17th, 2011

1. Google has uploaded some beautiful new satellite imagery of Pyongyang. Some parts of it are easier to see than others, and I have not gone through it all, but here are some fun, quick discoveries:

1. There appears to be a new aircraft runway in Ryongsong-guyok (룡성구역, 39.127835°, 125.777533°).  Maybe not, but maybe.

2. The Ryugyong Hotel is looking more and more like a space ship:

3. We can see 2012 building construction all over the place.  Below are the new apartments Kim Jong-il recently visited (L) at the foot of Haebang Hill and (R) behind the Central District Market (for artists).

Here and here are the KCNA stories about Kim’s visits to the sites.

Here is a photo of the artist-housing under construction.

The Haebang Hill apartments are built on the former location of the “Monument to the Fallen Fighters of the Korean People’s Army”.  See a picture of this former monument here.


2. DPRK TKD in USA. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, a North Korean Taekwondo team toured the northeastern US this week.  I wish I could have seen one of the shows…but here are some clips from the New York show on Youtube: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part4.

They did a great job and are tremendous athletes.  I hope they are able to return soon–and make it a little further south.


3. DPRK sand animation. This week KCNA posted some very interesting video of a “sand art” demonstration.  Very skilled performance. A viewer was able to rip the video and post it to YouTube.

Pictured above is the “Ryugyong Hotel fireworks” part of the performance.  Part 1 of the piece is here.  Part 2 of the piece is here.  The whole performance is well worth watching. If I could ever be a tourist to the DPRK again, I would want to see one of these performances.

UPDATE: A special thanks to Prof. Stephan Haggard for offering a helpful explication of the piece.

In a similar vein, this piece remains my favorite of the genre (from Ukraine).


2. Kim’s Train (Retro). Last week I posted recent video footage taken from inside Kim Jong-il’s train.  This week I post some retro footage taken in the 1970s(?):

You can see the video here.  The room set up is essentially the same, though Kim’s tastes have obviously changed!


3. The CNC backpack.

Here is the source.  Learn more about CNC here.


4. A North Korean artist reproduced da Vinci’s Last Supper for an art show in Russia. See the Russian-language version of the BBC here (picture-8 ). (h/t L.P.)



‘Pororo’ (뽀로로) a joint-Korean creation

Monday, May 16th, 2011

According to Reuters:

Pororo, who first debuted in 2003, is ubiquitous in South Korea, featured on everything from stick-on bandages to coffee mugs. Stamps with his image have sold more than those bearing the image of Olympic figure-skating champion Kim Yu-na, according to local media.

But few knew that North Korean cartoonists worked with their Southern counterparts to jointly produce part of the first two seasons of the television series that launched the bird to fame.

“This isn’t something that needs to be secret but by accident people found out that Pororo was partly produced in the North,” said Kim Jong-se, a senior official at Iconix Entertainment, the South Korean production company that developed Pororo.

“They gave us many responses, from very negative to very positive — we are a collaborator of the North or, it is great that both Koreas made the show together.”

After the leaders of North and South Korea signed a landmark peace pact in 2000 pledging new cooperative steps, Pororo was one of the inter-Korean businesses that developed, Kim said.

South Korean technicians went to the North to train their colleagues there. Production hit a snag when the North suddenly replaced its staff for the second season, forcing Kim’s company to repeat the teaching process, Kim said.

The North Korean participation took place between 2002 and 2005, ending when ties deteriorated between the two nations and the North could no longer join the project.

Pororo was probably developed at the Scientific and Educational Film Studio (SEK) or its affiliated April 26th Children’s Film Studio in Central District.  Guy Delisle worked there on an animation contract as well.  You can read about his experience here.

Read the full story here:
Iconic South Korean penguin character actually half-North Korean
Ju-min Park


DPRK emerges as animation producer

Monday, November 1st, 2010

According to the Korea Times:

North Korea’s information technology (IT) industry, especially in the field of computer-based animation production, is well on its way to achieve success, according to a Dutch outsourcing specialist currently conducting IT business with North Korean companies.

Speaking to an audience in Seoul for the launch of a book, “Europe-North Korea, Between Humanitarianism and Business,” Paul Tjia said France and Italy are two big users of North Korean animators.

He said that his Dutch clients also outsource animation to North Korea. European cartoon versions of classic literature such as “Arabian Nights” and “Les Miserables,” which aired on European television, were animated partly in North Korea.

The ceremony was organized by the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German organization.

Clients of animation produced in the isolated communist regime aren’t just Europeans.

In early 2000 when the inter-Korean relations were at a peak, even a few South Korean animations were made in North Korea.

“Pororo the Little Penguin,” an animated cartoon series, was an inter-Korean project completed in 2002. Also the same year, Akom, a South Korean company, also outsourced the production of “Empress Chung” to North Korea. The animation was released in 2005.

Tjia mentioned that some of the American Walt Disney animations were created by North Koreans, purely by accident. Politically North Korea and America have a thorny relationship and the American government prohibits the private sector from doing business with North Korean companies.

“There was a time when Walt Disney outsourced their animation production to countries in Asia like Vietnam or the Philippines. But the company didn’t have complete control over exactly which country the work was created, and found out later that some was produced in North Korea,” he said, adding that this was discovered after the animations had aired on TV.

An official at the Seoul Animation Center verified some of what the Dutchman said, confirming that Walt Disney’s outsourcing to Asia was true, and that’s precisely how South Korea’s animation industry took off.

The news of a burgeoning animation industry in North Korea comes as a surprise to many who are used to hearing mainly about food scarcity, human rights violations and the regime’s nuclear ambitions.

People in the North Korean IT industry are given far more freedom than regular people in traveling abroad. They freely travel to “learn new skills,” Tjia said, showing a group photo with North Korean IT engineers in Europe.

Apart from animations, he added, North Korea is also keen on developing computer games, cell phone applications and banking systems for clients from the Middle East.

Cell phone applications, in particular, were devised even though not a single cell phone was available in Pyongyang.

“They made them to target European clients,” he said.

Yet for some the emergence of North Korea as an animation producer isn’t without alarm.

One European diplomat at the venue expressed concern over security, raising the possibility that the IT business with Europe could empower North Korea to become a cyber attacker.

North Korea already has a record of carrying out cyber attacks against South Korean websites, the most recent of which took place last July.

“They (North Koreans) say they are capable of producing computer viruses,” Tjia said, and he has seen anti-virus programs made by the North. The chief of the South’s National Intelligence Service was quoted last year as saying that North Korea had a force of 1,000 hackers who could engage in cyber warfare. He also said the North had “remarkable” cyber skills to carry out a massive attack on the South.

Read the full story here:
North Korea emerges as animation producer
Korea Times
Kim Se-jeong


2010 Pyongyang Film Festival

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

According to the AFP:

One of the world’s most tightly-controlled societies got a rare glimpse of the outside world at the Pyongyang International Film Festival last week, where even Western films were screened.

Communist North Korea strictly controls access to information, including via mobile phones and the Internet, leaving most North Koreans in ignorance of the wider world. A tour guide had never heard of the late pop star Michael Jackson.

Yet participants in the 12th Pyongyang International Film Festival, which ended on September 24, say it helped open a window for the impoverished country.

Only a minority of the population was able to attend the event, but it gave them access to documentaries, feature films and shorts from several European countries and Canada.

Productions from Asia, Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere were also on the programme.

Henrik Nydqvist, a freelance film producer who was Sweden’s official delegate to the eight-day event, said anything which breaks North Korea’s isolation is positive.

“We think we’re doing something good here,” he said. “We feel we can make some positive impact… and that outweighs the other things.”

The festival has its own venue, the Pyongyang International Cinema House, which includes a 2,000-seat theatre as well as other smaller halls.

Red, blue and green neon signs hanging in the atrium beam the country’s foreign policy slogan: “Peace, independence, friendship”.

A 300-seat hall was almost completely filled with Koreans for an afternoon screening of the comedy “Pieces d’Identites” from Congo.

They sat quietly behind padlocked doors in a hot, airless room for the story of an African king who travels to Belgium in search of his daughter, who has been forced to work as a nude dancer.

The film’s images include bordellos and a heaving African nightclub, depicting a world alien to North Koreans who are bombarded with propaganda from childhood and whose showpiece capital Pyongyang appears to be stuck in a time decades past.

Such images can only help to bring about change, said a source connected with the film festival.

“They have in mind: Why is North Korea, my country, different?”

Connections are required to gain admission and authorities do not want the rural masses outside of the capital to see foreign movies, he said.

“I watched some poor people who wanted to see the movie, and the guard stopped them.”

At the event’s closing ceremony attended by more than 1,500 people, including foreign diplomats, Nydqvist read a letter of thanks to Kim Jong-Il, ruler of the country which has twice tested nuclear weapons and is under various United States and United Nations sanctions.

“The Pyongyang International Film Festival is unique,” the letter said, thanking Kim for his “care and interest.”

Such messages are common practice in the country, Nydqvist said.

Read the full story here:
Foreign films give isolated N.Korea rare window on world


German entrepreneurs in DPRK

Friday, September 17th, 2010

The German version of the Financial Times has published an interview (of sorts) with Volker Eloesser and his DPRK JV technology firm, Nosotek. Below I have posted an English translation of the article.

FT: You think the economy in North Korea is starving. That is right! Nevertheless, it attracts entrepreneurs there like Eloesser Volker from Germany. He tells Anna Lu the story of his life in the land of Kim Jong-il.

North Korea is one of the most isolated and inaccessible countries in the world. Nevertheless, there are millions of university trained Koreans and entrepreneurs living in the country. Volker Eloesser is one of the entrepreneurs. Eloesser runs a company in Pyongyang. The IT company is known as Nosotek and is a joint venture with the North Korean state. It is not very simple to talk to Eloesser about his life and work in North Korea. The lines are too unstable to North Korea, with numerous eavesdroppers. Not everything can be talked about openly. The following article is the outcome of countless emails between Pyongyang and Hamburg.

VE: “Why do we work in North Korea? There are signs that the country can develop into a booming region. Recently, a short report about the iPad was broadcast. Videos from South Korea are widely circulated amongst students. The policy change may not be imminent, but it is unstoppable. Once that happens, property prices will increase.

This is the strategy of most foreign companies here: Real estate speculation, even if the permits for foreigners are only granted in a joint venture status. Many of the companies produce products as a matter of form and do not make any significant profits. Other opportunities include buying up restaurants, shop buildings and swimming pools. Just imagine if someone would have built a restaurant in China in 1985 in Tiananmen Square. Or at Alexander Platz in East Berlin. Opportunities like these do not happen often in the world.

FT: Volker Eloesser operates an IT company in Pyongyang, North Korea and hopes the country develops into a booming region.

VE: Naturally, we only invest very little into production. Nosotek develops software and apps for the iPhone. We are quite successful. One time, we were even in the top ten in the App Store. Our customers do not want us to mention the name of our company or our employees’ names on the product. Although it is going well, we do not generate profits yet. Our headquarters is located in one of the most sought after residential areas in Pyongyang, not far from the center. The area boasts multi-story, stucco houses and easy metro access. These are some of the best conditions possible, so we are optimistic.

Unfortunately, many things are expensive here. The bulk of the goods are imported and therefore, cost twice as much as they would in China. Power, logistics and communications are almost prohibitive. However, wages are way below Chinese standards, which is a key benefit if you get good people. There are plenty here, all with a university degree in computer science or mathematics, some have doctorates. They seem to wait for an announcement of a job opening. I only have to ask my Korean partner and 14 days later new people are coming in for a trial. I can say nothing about the wages.

FT: In fact, the average salary in Pyongyang is around 3,000 Won a month. After a devastating currency reform and crop failures in recent years, this affords an employee about three kilos of rice. Eloesser does not say it, but we hear such things from aid workers in the region. The aid workers do not wish to be identified. Eloesser further:

Eating together in the common area.

VE: “In total we have 45 Korean employees, including five women. I, am the only European. We all eat in the company common area every single day. I particularly like the octopus salad and will miss it if I relocate. After work, colleagues remain a little longer and often sing songs to the guitar. The atmosphere is friendly. Nevertheless, it is not always easy. Koreans are very proud people who love their country and their culture and know nothing else.

It is not easy to convince them to do something differently. For many it is difficult to recognize a foreigner as an authority, and if they do not understand the meaning of a statement it is often not performed. However, the biggest difficulty is much different: We have an IT company without access to the internet. We solve this problem by delegating the development of online components to partner companies in China. Here in North Korea you can only do things offline. At home I have true internet access, but it is very slow and rather expensive.”

FT: In fact, one can only get on the internet via a satellite dish in North Korea. The acquisition cost to use the internet according to a local charity is the equivalent of 11,000 euros. The monthly expense may be up to 700 euros, depending on how many users share the connection.

VE: “Pyongyang itself has changed in the last few years. Since 2005, the first time I was here, the traffic has doubled. The days of empty roads are long gone, such images only haunt the internet. Instead of old taxis or Ladas, North Korean Pyonghwas and Malaysian Proton sedans are on the road now. Bicycles are hardly center. They may only drive on the sidewalks. There are lots of military jeeps or SUVs from Russian, Chinese and local manufacturers.

You meet uniformed people everywhere in North Korea, but not all are military. Civilians bear just as many olive green suits with no weapons or rank insignias. The rest are soldiers. Soldiers are often used to harvest and help with road and house construction. I never feel threatened by the military presence as a foreigner. I feel I am treated with respect. People think; if he was not important for our country, he would not be here. Nevertheless, I am of course aware that somebody writes reports about me. Wherever I go, if I am at a restaurant or at work, somebody knows me. He notes when and where I parked my car and statements like this interview will be read by the authorities. At first I thought they listened to me at my apartment. However, even if they have actually done this, I think it has become boring for them.

Sometimes I can understand their suspicions; the reports by many Western media outlets are biased. Recently, the North Korean government printed a picture of children splashing around in Wonsan. People abroad believed the picture was staged, but this type of activity is common in the summertime heat.

FT: Sense of unwritten prohibitions

VE: The authorities are particularly suspicious of journalists and tourists because they do not know their true intentions. We are entrepreneurs and largely left alone. We are not required to go to political events or memorials. As a business man you have one clear goal, business. It is understood and supported. Life would be easier if we knew what we can and cannot do. Unfortunately, this is not written anywhere. It is better to hold back. Over time, you develop a sense of unwritten prohibitions. I have my own opinion about the policy, but I will keep it to myself. I make sure I never have a camera with me, not even on my phone. I do this so no one thinks I want to photograph something without permission. I live in the Bulgarian Embassy because there are no mixed residences. I never visit North Koreans at home and do not talk to them on the street. I do talk to children occasionally. They are not afraid of foreigners and like to try out their English vocabulary. They will say things like; “How old are you?” Where do you come from? Bye-bye.” Then they run away giggling.

Basically, I lead a fairly normal life here. I can move around in my free time and go to the mountains and play golf or tennis. There is a night life in Pyongyang with bars and karaoke. More precisely, there are two types of night life, one for locals and one for foreigners. For example, I do not get tickets to the local cinema. Today I went to an amusement park that many North Koreans visit. The park was built in 2010 and is equipped with fair attractions like the kind they have once a year in small German towns.

Shopping is not a problem. There are no signs of a food shortage as the shops are packed. Curiously, a kilo of chicken on the market is often cheaper than a kilo of vegetables. This may be because chickens can live in backyards and on balconies. Vegetables cannot, that would require offseason greenhouses, which are not found in North Korea. Imported goods usually have astronomical prices. For example; a Hungarian salami costs the equivalent of 42 euros. Other products like yogurt cannot be found in the summer because the refrigeration is inadequate. Sometimes I shop at the diplomatic supermarket and buy things like Haribo, Mosel wine and milk chocolate.”

FT: Of course, the well-equipped shops have a catch; purchases must be paid for in euros.

VE: “By the way, last Saturday night something strange happened. I had an accident. A man ran out in front of my car. He was in dark clothing and came out of nowhere across the eight-lane main road. I slammed on the brakes, but the car hit him, and he fell onto the road. When someone came to help him up, he quickly departed from the scene of the accident. You call that a victim’s escape?

A short time later, three police officers arrived on motorcycles. They were friendly and professional, and they even offered me a cigarette. In some other countries, I would have been imprisoned or would have been asked to pay an exorbitant bribe. Here I was only given a warning, because I had forgotten my passport and driver’s license and the technical inspection (also here) was outdated by nine months. That was all. There was not a victim. Only screeching tires in the night.”

The original German verison can be found here:
Unser Mann in Pjöngjang
Financial Times (German edition)


Some see Cheonan in new DPRK propaganda poster

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010


According to the Joong Ang Daily:

[Radio Free Asia] reported on its Korean Web site that the poster shows a fully armed soldier cutting a corvette similar to the Cheonan in half with his bare fist. Below the image is the phrase “Deom-byeo-deul-myeon Dan-mae-e!” (“Ready to crush any attack with a single blow!”).

Radio Free Asia based its report on an interview with the businessman, who took the photo of the poster on a recent trip to North Korea. The poster is shown on the RFA Korean Web site. The RFA did not specify the date the photo was taken but, citing unnamed sources, said it was likely the poster was made after the Cheonan sinking to encourage military heroism among North Korean soldiers.

The RFA quoted the Chinese businessman as saying, “Officials in North Korea have claimed that the South Korean government’s accusation of North Korea as the culprit in the Cheonan incident is a false charge, but the propaganda poster showing the breaking of a ship in two pieces seems to conflict with their claim.”

The full Joong Ang Daily article can be seen here.

Here is a picture of the Cheonan:


At first glance the painting seems like it could be the Cheonan or some kind of corvette vessel.  I looked through my books on North Korean propaganda and found several images of soldiers smashing things with their fists (western books and videos, the US capital, imperialist soldiers, etc—but no naval vessels). I also found several posters with naval ships…but they were all of the USS Pueblo.  This is the first North Korean poster I have seen that features a naval vessel that is not the Pueblo.  However, I am more inclined to think it is a generic ship “form” meant to convey a broad idea rather than a specific act.  This is because the painted ship, in addition to bearing some slight differences with the actual Cheonan,  is “stylized”–it lacks a propeller and a flag of origin. A great new addition to the North Korean propaganda collection nonetheless.


The DPRK’s internet, business, and radio wars

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Martyn Williams releases three DPRK stories this week all covering interesting issues…

North Korea Moves Quietly onto the Internet

North Korea, one of the world’s few remaining information black holes, has taken the first step toward a fully fledged connection to the Internet. But a connection, if it comes, is unlikely to mean freedom of information for North Korea’s citizens.

In the past few months, a block of 1,024 Internet addresses, reserved for many years for North Korea but never touched, has been registered to a company with links to the government in Pyongyang.

The numeric IP addresses lie at the heart of communication on the Internet. Every computer connected to the network needs its own address so that data can be sent and received by the correct servers and computers. Without them, communication would fall apart.

It is unclear how the country’s secretive leadership plans to make use of the addresses. It seems likely they will be assigned for military or government use, but experts say it is impossible to know for sure.

North Korea’s move toward the Internet comes as it finds itself increasingly isolated on the world stage. The recent sinking of a South Korean warship has been blamed on the insular country. As a result, there are calls for tougher sanctions that would isolate North Korea further.

“There is no place for the Internet in contemporary DPRK,” said Leonid A. Petrov, a lecturer in Korean studies at The University of Sydney, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “If the people of North Korea were to have open access to the World Wide Web, they would start learning the truth that has been concealed from them for the last six decades.”

“Unless Kim Jong-Il or his successors feel suicidal, the Internet, like any other free media, will never be allowed in North Korea,” he said.

The North Korean addresses were recently put under the control of Star Joint Venture, a Pyongyang-based company that is partly controlled by Thailand’s Loxley Pacific. The Thai company has experience working with North Korea on high-tech projects, having built North Korea’s first cellular telephone network, Sunnet, in 2002.

Loxley acknowledged that it is working on a project with Pyongyang, but Sahayod Chiradejsakulwong, a manager at the company, wouldn’t elaborate on plans for the addresses.

“This is a part of our business that we do no want to provide information about at the moment,” he said.

A connection to the Internet would represent a significant upgrade of the North’s place in cyberspace, but it’s starting from a very low base.

At present the country relies on servers in other countries to disseminate information. The Web site of the Korea Central News Agency, the North’s official mouthpiece, runs on a server in Japan, while Uriminzokkiri, the closest thing the country has to an official Web site, runs from a server in China.

North Korean citizens have access to a nationwide intranet system called Kwangmyong, which was established around 2000 by the Pyongyang-based Korea Computer Center. It connects universities, libraries, cybercafes and other institutions with Web sites and e-mail, but offers no links to the outside world.

Connections to the actual Internet are severely limited to the most elite members of society. Estimates suggest no more than a few thousand North Koreans have access to the Internet, via a cross-border hook-up to China Netcom. A second connection exists, via satellite to Germany, and is used by diplomats and companies.

For normal citizens of North Korea, the idea of an Internet hook-up is unimaginable, Petrov said.

Kim Jong-Il, the de-facto leader of the country, appears all too aware of the destructive power that freedom of information would have to his regime.

While boasting of his own prowess online at an inter-Korean summit meeting in 2007, he reportedly rejected an Internet connection to the Kaesong Industrial Park, the jointly run complex that sits just north of the border, and said that “many problems would arise if the Internet at the Kaesong Park is connected to other parts of North Korea.”

Kim himself has made no secret of the Internet access that he enjoys, and famously asked then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for her e-mail address during a meeting in 2000.

The government’s total control over information extends even as far as requiring radios be fixed on domestic stations so foreign voices cannot be heard.

The policy shows no signs of changing, so any expansion of the Internet into North Korea would likely be used by the government, military or major corporations.

The World’s Most Unusual Outsourcing Destination

Think of North Korea, and repression, starvation and military provocation are probably the first things that come to mind. But beyond the geopolitical posturing, North Korea has also been quietly building up its IT industry.

Universities have been graduating computer engineers and scientists for several years, and companies have recently sprung up to pair the local talent with foreign needs, making the country perhaps the world’s most unusual place for IT outsourcing.

With a few exceptions, such as in India, outsourcing companies in developing nations tend to be small, with fewer than 100 employees, said Paul Tija, a Rotterdam-based consultant on offshoring and outsourcing. But North Korea already has several outsourcers with more then 1,000 employees.

“The government is putting an emphasis on building the IT industry,” he said. “The availability of staff is quite large.”

At present, the country’s outsourcers appear to be targeting several niche areas, including computer animation, data input and software design for mobile phones. U.S. government restrictions prevent American companies from working with North Korean companies, but most other nations don’t have such restrictions.

The path to IT modernization began in the 1990s but was cemented in the early 2000s when Kim Jong Il, the de-facto leader of the country, declared people who couldn’t use computers to be one of the three fools of the 21st century. (The others, he said, are smokers and those ignorant of music.)

But outsourcing in North Korea isn’t always easy.

Language can be a problem, and a lack of experience dealing with foreign companies can sometimes slow business dealings, said Tija. But the country has one big advantage.

“It is one of the most competitive places in the world. There are not many other countries where you can find the same level of knowledge for the price,” said Tija.

The outsourcer with the highest profile is probably Nosotek. The company, established in 2007, is also one of the few Western IT ventures in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

“I understood that the North Korean IT industry had good potential because of their skilled software engineers, but due to the lack of communication it was almost impossible to work with them productively from outside,” said Volker Eloesser, president of Nosotek. “So I took the next logical step and started a company here.”

Nosotek uses foreign expats as project managers to provide an interface between customers and local workers. In doing so it can deliver the level of communication and service its customers expect, Eloesser said.

On its Web site the company boasts access to the best programmers in Pyongyang.

“You find experts in all major programming languages, 3D software development, 3D modelling and design, various kind of server technologies, Linux, Windows and Mac,” he said.

Nosotek’s main work revolves around development of Flash games and games for mobile phones. It’s had some success and claims that one iPhone title made the Apple Store Germany’s top 10 for at least a week, though it wouldn’t say which one.

Several Nosotek-developed games are distributed by Germany’s Exonet Games, including one block-based game called “Bobby’s Blocks.”

“They did a great job with their latest games and the communication was always smooth,” said Marc Busse, manager of digital distribution at the Leipzig-based company. “There’s no doubt I would recommend Nosotek if someone wants to outsource their game development to them.”

Eloesser admits there are some challenges to doing business from North Korea.

“The normal engineer has no direct access to the Internet due to government restrictions. This is one of the main obstacles when doing IT business here,” he said. Development work that requires an Internet connection is transferred across the border to China.

But perhaps the biggest problem faced by North Korea’s nascent outsourcing industry is politics.

Sanctions imposed on the country by the United States make it all but impossible for American companies to trade with North Korea.

“I know several American companies that would love to start doing IT outsourcing in North Korea, but because of political reasons and trade embargoes they can’t,” Tija said.

Things aren’t so strict for companies based elsewhere, including those in the European Union, but the possible stigma of being linked to North Korea and its ruling regime is enough to make some companies think twice.

The North Korean government routinely practices arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill treatment of detainees, and allows no political opposition, free media or religious freedom, according to the most recent annual report from Human Rights Watch. Hundreds of thousands of citizens are kept in political prison camps, and the country carries out public executions, the organization said.

With this reputation some companies might shy away from doing business with the country, but Exonet Games didn’t have any such qualms, said Busse.

“It’s not like we worked with the government,” he said. “We just worked with great people who have nothing to do with the dictatorship.”

Radio Wars Between North and South Korea (YouTube Video)


Can North Korea be safe for business?

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Geoffrey Cain writes in Time:

Few investors can boast the one-of-a-kind global pedigree of Felix Abt. Since 2002, the Swiss businessman has found his calling as a point man for Western investments in — of all places — North Korea, where he helped found the Pyongyang Business School in 2004. He also presided over the European Business Association in Pyongyang, a group in the capital that acts as a de facto chamber of commerce. A few years ago, that position led him to help set up the first “European Booth” featuring around 20 European companies each year at the Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair, an annual gathering of 270 foreign and North Korean companies currently underway in the hermit kingdom until Thursday.

Yet Abt, 55, who lives in Vietnam and therefore won’t be attending the trade fair this year, laments the giant cloud hanging over the country: in recent years, political turmoil on the peninsula has raised the stakes even further for doing business in North Korea — even for the country’s main patron, China. Though investors have always faced the prospect of sanctions, he says, the situation has worsened after the United States ratcheted up sanctions on the government in 2006 on allegations that it was counterfeiting U.S. dollars. And in 2006 and 2009 the Kim Jong-il regime tested two small nuclear bombs, prompting heavier sanctions from the United Nations in 2006. Recently, tensions with Seoul have spiked over the March sinking of a South Korean corvette in waters near the North.(See pictures of the rise of Kim Jong-il.)

Those measures hit home for Abt. While he was running a pharmaceutical company in Pyongyang called Pyongsu in the mid-2000s, he learned that the U.N. Security Council had imposed sanctions on certain chemicals — a move that could have forced him to completely stop manufacturing medicine. Thankfully, he adds, he had already secured a large stock of the substance beforehand. “Whatever business you are involved in,” he says, “some day you may find out that some product or even a tiny but unavoidable component is banned by a U.S. or U.N. sanctions because it can, for example, also be used for military purposes.”

Those dilemmas haven’t stopped Abt. In 2007, he co-founded an information technology firm in Pyongyang called Nosotek, whose 50 or so employees design software applications for the iPhone and Facebook. The venture has already seen its share of success: one of its iPhone games ranked first in popularity for a short while on Apple’s Top 10 list for Germany — though he can’t name the software out of concern for protecting his contractors from bad publicity.(See pictures of North Koreans at the polls.)

For some companies, the stigma of a “Made in North Korea” label matters less than the competitive edge gained from having low overhead costs and a diligent workforce whose wages remain less than outsourcing powerhouses like China, Vietnam and India. In the past, North Korea has attracted the interest of multinational corporations looking for cheap labor in fields as diverse as electrical machinery and cartoon animation. Yet few multinationals show their faces at this month’s fair, a decline from the early 2000s when Abt says they were appearing regularly to look for opportunities in electricity, infrastructure, transportation and mining.

Not all foreign ventures in the North are driven by profit margins alone. The 2005 animated Korean movie Empress Cheung, a popular fantasy film drawn jointly by South and North Korean animators, brought attention to the animation industry in North Korea. Nelson Shin, head of the Seoul-based animation studio that started the project, claims he worked with North Korea for a greater cause than cheap labor. “It wasn’t so much because of cost efficiency as because of cultural exchange between the two Koreas,” he says.

For a country so poor, North Korea has churned out a remarkable number of talented engineers and scientists who fuel some of these small sectors (along with its controversial nuclear weapons program). In the 1960s and 1970s, the government pushed the country to become self-sufficient through development projects, a part of its ideology of “Juche” that promotes absolute autonomy from foreign powers. The communist regime of Kim Il-sung prided itself on its universities and public housing system, in particular. “It was an advance from pre-World War II days,” says Helen-Louise Hunter, a former CIA analyst now in Washington, D.C., who researched North Korea during those decades. “Kim Il-sung was genuinely interested in improving his people’s standard of living, and was off to a good start in a couple of areas compared to South Korea in those early days.”

Yet North Korea fell behind after the South’s own military dictators put their country into industrial overdrive throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, depriving North Korea of valuable aid. Then came a famine in the mid-1990s that delivered the final blow, leaving up to 3 million people dead and crippling the capacities of the already isolated state.

Today, the pariah regime of Kim Jong-il is allegedly known to raise money through illicit activities like trafficking narcotics and money laundering. But it’s not known how much those activities figure into the country’s GDP of $28.2 billion in 2009 and its $2 billion worth of exports in 2008, the most recent year data is available. “Not that much income comes from illegitimate operations if you mean drugs and counterfeited dollars,” says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. “More come from arms sales, though, but I would not describe this as an illegitimate trade.”

Abt shakes off the image of Pyongyang being the center of a mafia state. He sees himself and other foreign investors as the potential movers and changers of Kim’s hermit regime. “Cornering a country is ethically more questionable than engagement,” he says. “Foreigners engaging with North Koreans are change agents. The North Koreans are confronted with new ideas which they will observe and test, reject or adopt.”

Read the full story here:
Can North Korea Be Safe for Business?
Geoffrey Cain