Reaching a South Korean audience by finding laughs from North Korea
The Washington Post | .
published: August 29, 2016
SEOUL — The grinding hunger and repression of life in North Korea is no laughing matter, but Choi Seong-Guk, once an animator in Pyongyang, is pointing out the funny side to a whole generation of South Koreans.
His online comic strip - a "webtoon," as they're known in the most wired country on the planet - has become enormously popular in the four months since the defector began publishing it on Naver, South Korea's answer to Google.
Called Rodong Simmun - a pun on the North's state-run Rodong Sinmun, or "Workers' Newspaper," with "simmun" meaning "investigation" - it describes the struggles that North Korean defectors go through to adjust to life in the fast-paced South.
More than 30,000 people who have escaped from North Korea are living in the South, the vast majority of them from the areas bordering China that are considered the boonies even by North Korean standards.
In the capitalist cut-and-thrust of the South, many find themselves mocked for their funny accents or for not knowing about things that are commonplace in Southern life, such as credit cards and computers.
Through his webtoon, Choi deftly shows how someone from the relative Dark Ages of the northern half of the peninsula deals with modern conveniences such as smartphone apps and indoor plumbing.
"I'm describing North Korea from a capitalist's perspective," said Choi, 36, in his office at a publishing house where he works. "I use South Korean humor to talk about the life of North Korean defectors. And I think people find that funny."
Other cartoons show North Koreans being debriefed as they arrive in the South - and mistaking their interrogators for the security services of the North, wondering whether they're going to be tortured. (They're not. They're going to be given housing and about $20,000 in cash to help them settle here.)
Some cartoons hit upon the personality cult that revolves around the ruling Kim family, the overarching totalitarianism. One shows people endlessly cleaning the dirt roads in their village in case leader Kim Jong Un comes through. "When you get tired, just think of the Marshal," it says.
South Koreans seem to find Choi's cartoon project, which he launched in May, funny. Choi's webtoon is now among the "challengers" to the top ranks of cartoon strips on Naver, putting him close to being able to earn money for his art.
"Thank you always for your fun cartoons!"one reader wrote using the online name Bubblegum. "I now realize what difficulties North Korean defectors go through in South Korea."
"It's sad and funny at the same time that North Koreans have to repent for trying to survive because they can't rely on their leader," wrote Amying, another reader. "You have shown the naked truth about North Korea."
Asked why his webtoons were popular, Choi answered: "Imagine this. Say there was a king from the Chosun dynasty and he was on a smartphone. Wouldn't that be so funny?" (The Chosun dynasty lasted from 1392 to 1897.)
"My duty is to show you can come from a socialist state and be a success in a capitalist society," Choi said, adding that he bases his stories on real North Koreans - like the couple who ended up in a labor camp on their wedding day.
But he tries to keep it light, or at least lightish. There is no torture or starvation in these cartoons.
"That would be too heavy," Choi said. "If you put too much focus on human rights, people will be turned off. And some of the things that happen in North Korea are so absurd, people wouldn't believe it."
Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a nongovernmental organization that helps defectors, said that the webtoon as a form is novel and easily consumable, mixing serious content with entertainment.
"I think it's very smart for him to focus on things like the experience of going through intelligence debriefings from a North Korean perspective," he said. "This is just stuff that it's interesting for South Koreans to learn about."
The South Korean language is full of English loanwords that are completely foreign to North Koreans, from "macchiato" to "chatting." Likewise, the North Korean language remains stuck in 1950.
Park savors the way that Choi uses North Korean words incidentally in his webtoons. South Koreans will do a double take but will be able to figure out the meaning from the context - it's a subtle way of showing how the two countries have veered away from each other over the past 70 years.
Cartooning comes naturally to Choi, who in his previous life worked at the main animation studio in Pyongyang, making propaganda for the state as well as contributing to Disney feature films including "The Lion King" and "Pocahontas." (In the early 2000s, international studios from a range of countries, including the United States and Europe, were outsourcing work to North Korea, although this seems to have stopped in recent years.)
"The studio was making $8 million a year, and I worked there for eight years. It was like a dream job in North Korea," he said, even if he received only $1 a month.
But he recalls that a European man who was working at the studio had wads of cash in his wallet and thought nothing of sharing expensive foreign cigarettes by the carton. Shocked at the inequality, Choi started selling computer parts and, eventually, smuggled in DVDs of South Korean dramas.
He ended up in prison and, once out, fell in love with a girl who was out of his league because she was from an elite family. He branched out into taking portraits and using his computer skills to edit them so they looked like something out of a South Korean drama.
Realizing that his romance was doomed and his work would land him back in prison, Choi set about plotting his escape, leaving North Korea at the end of 2010 with the help of his mother, who had already made it to the South.
Choi worked as a reporter for a radio station that broadcasts into North Korea, trying to get outside information to the people, and in the Unification Ministry, which is dedicated to relations with the North.
Then he heard about a magazine that wanted a cartoonist to draw about life in North Korea for a South Korean audience. At first he demurred. "They're so labor intensive, and also, I consider cartoons to be the highest level of cultural product and I didn't think my understanding of life in South Korea was deep enough," Choi said.
But Choi was persuaded and started drawing for the magazine, then branched out into webtoons.
"I realized, yes, I'm good," Choi said, laughing. "I'm trying to be the best at webtoons. I hope I can help people understand more about North Korea, so that North Korea won't exist for much longer."