- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

SEOUL

Nuclear-armed North Korea is notorious for selling its missiles overseas, but the hard-line 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 expertise.

“Animation is one of the rare sectors where North Korea is following the global trend,” says 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,” Mr. Lee says. Among the major clients are studios in France, Italy and China, he adds.

Mr. 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, Mr. Lee says. “They just love it. They see the U.S. in the headstrong cat and North Korea in the wise mouse.”

The center 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 computerized equipment.

“SEK is one of the largest hard currency earners in North Korea,” says Nelson Shin, a North Korea-born U.S. producer who worked on “The Simpsons.”

“SEK is a rare North Korean company that can directly engage in foreign trade and deploys representatives overseas,” says Mr. Shin, a frequent visitor to the North.

The state-run company worked for Mr. Shin’s U.S.-South Korean studio KOAA Films on his $6.5 million 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,” Mr. Shin says, adding that Disney 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 to the mid-1950s, when it sent young artists to what was then Czechoslovakia to learn the craft, according to Mr. Lee of KAPA.

South Korea, however, has come from behind on the strength of its plentiful animators and computer technology. It earned $120 million 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 labor-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 thousands of films.

The country is becoming priced out of the lower-end work by latecomers and is 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,” says Kim Jong-Se, marketing director of Iconix Entertainment.

Iconix trained North Koreans in 3-D animation when it subcontracted work to a company called Samcholli. The firm produced part of a cartoon series titled “Pororo the Little Penguin” in 2003 and ‘05.

The series turned out to be a big hit, selling in more than 40 countries.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Kim says.

Iconix Entertainment Chief Executive Choi Jong-Il says 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,” Mr. Choi says.

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