Cartoon series 'Pororo the Little Penguin'
By Kim Se-jeong
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.
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