While North Korea more often makes headlines for nuclear tests and programs, economic sanctions, and human rights violations, the nation often described as reclusive and impoverished appears to have an emerging animation industry, according to an article from December 2006 on the Radio Free Asia website. The article indicates that North Korea is becoming a “significant player in the global business of animation and cinema—exporting cartoons throughout Asia, Europe, and North America.”

According to the article, the state-run SEK studio is one of the largest in the world, employing 1,600 staff who work with “state-of-the-art equipment.” The North Korean studio has worked on Pororo from South Korean, and US animated features such as The Lion King and Pocahontas, as well as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.

The article also reports that South Korean animators have been collaborating with North Korean animators to produce some of their animated TV episodes.

The volume of these cross-border transactions (any data on exact numbers??) makes sense on a variety of fronts. From an outsourcing (both economics and supply chain manangement) perspective, North Korea uses the same language, is in close geographic proximity, has cultural similiarities at least historically. Vitally, one would expect enormous cost savings for South Korean firms to outsource animation work to the north. Politically, the South Korean Government has been eager to engage with the North so we could hypothesise at least that firms would face few political roadblocks on the Southern side. Political issues and transparency issues in the North not withstanding, the only key issues left would be quality of workmanship and the ability to communicate clearly to contractors what work is required.

On the quality front, animators featured in the article seem to think there is no problem:

Choi Jong-Il, president of Iconix Entertainment believes the technical skill of North Korean animators is well developed.

“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.”

Nelson Shin, founder and president of of Akom who has worked on animated television series including “The Simpsons,” “The Pink Panther,” “X-Men,” “Invasion America,” and “Arthur” and has directed “The Transformers”, was surprised by the quality coming out of North Korea.

“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, but I had no idea North Koreans would turn out to be such outstanding animators,”

Yet Choi believes they fall down on their ability to communicate, which appears to be hampered by the lack of freedom of movement of people in and out of North Korea.

“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.”

Shin however, is more positive about communications between the two nation’s animators.

“With South and North Korean animators working together, there are no misunderstandings or miscommunication. For three years, South and North Korean animators worked hard together and conversed well.

Shin has had his latest North-South co-production is 39-episode animated TV series titled “The People of Koguryo,” approved by the North Korean Ministry of Culture and the South Korean Ministry of Unification.