"Far, far away, unknown and untouched by human civilization, lies a peaceful island covered in snow and ice. On this white island, deep inside a small secluded forest, is a tiny village inhabited by little animals. No one knows how they came to live on the island, but they naturally came to live together in the village situated in the little valley where the sunshine is warmest and the cold wind is least harsh."
Thus begins the wildly popular South Korean cartoon series "Pororo the Little Penguin"—whose heroes and catchy theme are omnipresent throughout South Korea. Less widely known, however, is that the series has been produced in part by highly skilled animators in neighboring rival North Korea, one of the most isolated, impoverished, and technologically backward countries on Earth.
Already suffering severe cash and food shortages since the mid-1990s, North Korea drew an international outcry and mandatory U.N. sanctions when it tested a nuclear device Oct. 9. And yet the world's most reclusive country has meanwhile emerged over the last decade as a significant player in the global business of animation and cinema—exporting cartoons throughout Asia, Europe, and North America.
Analysts say Pyongyang's animation expertise likely reflects the patronage and personal involvement of the country's all-powerful leader Kim Jong Il, a noted film aficionado whose personal video collection is said to comprise tens of thousands of titles.
Even in conditions of extreme economic hardship, sometimes famine, the North Korean film industry is believed to produce around 60 movies a year. Kim's government has concentrated on exporting cartoons and feature films abroad, contacting potential buyers and inviting representatives from the film industry to the Pyongyang Film Festival every other year.
Choi Jong-Il, President of Iconix Entertainment, the Seoul-based company that makes "Pororo," described North Korean animation as "robust."
Expert animators, poor communications
"North Korea employs animation to deliver various messages to the public, and North Korean animators have been sub-contracted by Japanese and European companies. That is why technically they are strong."
Media experts say North Korean production values are top quality. The state-run SEK studio is one of the largest in the world, employing 1,600 staff working with state-of-the-art equipment.
Among its clients are the Korean-American studio KOAA, for whom SEK worked on a U.S. $6.5 million feature titled Empress Chung. Another North Korean studio, Samcholli, helped produce "Lazy Cat Dinga" for Hanaro Telecom.
Iconix trained the North Koreans in 3D animation, Choi said, adding, "They were very quick learners. If they find a way to solve their managerial and communication issues, I see a possibility that they might catch up with South Korean animators within the next decade or so."
SEK studios in Pyongyang animated 10 of 52 episodes of the first season of "Pororo," he said, but Iconix found communications with their North Korean collaborators too cumbersome to continue.
'I had no idea'
"To come up with work plans, one needs a steady flow of communication, but communication with North Korea has been very difficult," Choi said. "Short of traveling there, the best one can do is to communicate via fax, but they're not very enthusiastic about doing that either. This wouldn't necessarily be a huge problem, if we could travel to North Korea freely, as we do to other countries."
Iconix, whose productions have won recognition at animation festivals in France, Italy, and Latin America, isn't the first animation house to draw on talent from the isolated Stalinist state, according to reports.
"The first time I watched North Korean animation, I simply thought that if we tried our best, there might be a possibility to work together, b