For decades, world leaders have accused the communist regime of North Korea of running drugs, defrauding insurance companies and counterfeiting US dollars. It’s also one of the few governments in the world that is known to so openly sponsor mafia-like operations.
But beneath Kim Jong-il’s sinister regime of Mafiosos, the Dear Leader has a heartier side: he sells comic books and animation to raise government funds—and to brainwash the masses.
Every year, a state-owned publishing house releases several cartoons (called geurim-chaek in North Korea), many of which are smuggled across the Chinese border and, sometimes, mysteriously end up in university libraries in the United States.
The books are designed to instill the Juche philosophy of Kim Il-sung (the ‘father’ of North Korea)—radical self-reliance of the state. The plots brim with propaganda, featuring scheming capitalists from the United States and Japan who create dilemmas for naïve North Korean characters.
‘These books are mostly geared toward children, unlike South Korean comic books [manhwa], which are often aimed at adults,’ says Park Jae-dong, one of South Korea’s most famous cartoonists who once drew for the Hankoryeh, a left-leaning newspaper in Seoul.
In almost every cartoon, those who stay faithful to Juche have happy endings; the others aren’t so lucky.
The villains fit outlandish stereotypes. Americans are usually depicted with big noses, German Nazis as wearing swastikas and Japanese with glasses and buck teeth.
In The Secret of Frequency A, published in 1994, a group of North Korean teenagers save an unnamed African country from a strange plague, says Heinz Insu Fenkl, an expert on North Korean comics at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz.
With the help of their professor, the kids foil the plans of imperialist scientists from the US and Japan, who have been developing biological weapons.
‘The key scene is when the North Korean scientist finds a way to turn a symbol of Biblical plague, locusts, into fertilizer by making them self-destruct,’ Fenkl says. ‘I found this one especially interesting because it was published in 1994, which would have been during the height of the drought and famine in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea].’
‘It’s a sort of North Korean “Hardy Boys” story,’ he adds, referring to the 80-year-running US serial about two boys who fight crime in their suburb.
Another comic book, The Spunky Raccoon, is about a raccoon who always ends up in mischief, and learns the lessons of Juche along the way. In some episodes, a jackal tricks the raccoon and takes advantage of his compassion. In others, the raccoon learns to overcome his laziness to help the collective of other raccoons, and also learns to share.
But the newer books—especially those published after 2000—tend to be historical military thrillers. They draw on sensational espionage tales from the Korean War (known in North Korea as the ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War’) in 1950-53, and from World War II.
In A Blizzard in the Jungle, published in 2001, a group of Americans and North Koreans traveling on an airplane crash in an unnamed African country. The hero, a North Korean doctor, repeats North Korean proverbs every few pages, and stands in gallant poses similar to those of Kim Il-sung, found on statues familiar to all North Koreans.
North Koreans are depicted as wise and benevolent, whereas everyone else is oppressed by menacing underground mafias, Fenkl says.
The doctor urges the group to scale a mountain in this African country, symbolic of Mt. Paekdu near the China-North Korea border—the sacred birthplace of Kim Jong-il.
But when the Americans complain their human rights are being violated, they attempt to split ways and are devoured in a pit of alligators. Let this be a warning.
Given North Korea’s heavy involvement in Africa, it makes sense that North Koreans draw so many cartoons about the continent, Fenkl says. A little over decade ago, North Korea supplied the Democratic Republic of Congo with troops and advisors in exchange for access to Congolese uranium mines. It’s also provided aid and laborers for several African countries in recent years.
Another popular genre—one that’s become more common recently—is the mythic narrative. Often, North Korean comic books depict an actual historical myth, or re-work the story into a contemporary cartoon style.
One epic narrative is The Great General Mighty Wing, a graphic novel for children published in 1994. In it, Mighty Wing the honeybee fends off an army of invading wasps—curiously dressed like Japanese soldiers from World War II. After the wasps are pushed back, the queen bee declares a draught is killing off their once prosperous kingdom. Mighty Wing rallies the other honeybees to build an irrigation canal, bringing water to all honeybees.
Mighty Wing gained fame in North Korea thanks to the uncertainty the artists touched on. Kim Il-sung had died that same year and many North Koreans were uncertain of what hardships the famine would bring.
‘Mighty Wing, in some ways, was an iconic image,’ Fenkl says. ‘It was a brilliant move to use bees, or beol, as a symbol to resonate with the historical irrigation project, the Yeoldu 3,000 Ri Beol.’
Fenkl says his next project is to gather the best books in a single, easily accessible archive. ‘Generally, things with a high rhetorical value or high aesthetic value, in comic form, are what I want to archive,’ he said.
The project would certainly be groundbreaking—and could offer a valuable glimpse into a state and regime that is notoriously difficult for outsiders to understand.