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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Comics in North Korea

by | September 29th, 2013 | 07:00 am
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Comic books can by a powerful lens by which to view the beliefs, aspirations, and anxieties of a society, and in North Korea this appears to be doubly true. Heinz Insu Fenkl, associate professor at the State University of New York, has put up a few well-translated examples of North Korean comics on his website, including excerpts from Great General Mighty Wing, The Crystal Key, Blizzard in the Jungle, and The Secret of Frequency A. While a bit dated (the most recent is from 2001), these works nevertheless offer a fairly relevant window into how North Korea views itself, and how it views the outside world.

mighty wing and blizzard

The DPRK is not known for its subtlety, and nowhere is this more obvious than 1994′s Mighty Wing (upper right), a tale of three soldier bees that really want to impress their benevolent queen. Apparently, the slap-you-in-the-face ideological lessons from the story aren’t obvious enough, because the writers have actually printed fun little sayings along the sides of each page to reinforce the scene’s point (“You must endure hardship and suffering to win happiness,” “Never think of the enemy as a lamb…always consider him a jackal,” etc.). More interestingly, Mighty Wing appears to be addressing the economic deterioration of the 90’s: the characters mull over opportunity cost decisions (build a summer house for the queen or increase honey production) and learn to be creative given limited resources. The aspect of food security and drought looms particularly large in this work, perhaps an indicator of growing anxiety about food availability prior to the full famine conditions of the mid-1990s.

Honestly, Mighty Wing was about what I expected DPRK comics to be, but 2001′s Blizzard in the Jungle (upper left) is a bit surprising. The stark illustrations are much more adult in nature, and the story is global in scale, featuring an international cast of characters that must work together to survive after a plane crash in an unnamed African country. Granted, lessons here are still pretty obvious (North Korean characters: “We’re super smart and really awesome”, African Characters: “The North Koreans are super smart and really awesome, so let’s obey them”, American Characters: “We’re greedy individualists, so we’re gunna go off and get killed”).

At any rate, both Mighty Wing and Blizzard are worth your time to read, in addition to this Global Post article which goes into more detail about Fenkl’s work. And, hey, if your boss asks why you’re reading comics at work, just tell them you are doing cultural research. It worked for me!

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