Escaping North Korea and fleeing to freedom in South Korea might not seem like a storyline filled with humour.
But, an online comic strip created by a North Korean refugee attempts to add some laughs to what can be a harrowing journey and a difficult transition to life below the border.
Reporter Jason Strother in Seoul has his story.
There’s a rumour that parts of the Lion King were animated in an unlikely place.
37-year old Choi Seong-gok doesn’t believe this rumour. And he might know better than anyone else. He used to work as an animator for a studio in Pyongyang.
He told me about his old job over iced coffee at a café in Seoul, where he now lives.
“We made our own versions of the Lion King, Pocahontas and an animated Titanic movie. I guess this rumour about the studio working for Disney began because of these movies,” he says.
The studio made these knock off cartoons for television networks overseas, he explains.
Choi says he’s had a knack for drawling cartoons ever since he was a kid. In a country where all art must serve a political agenda, he won praise from teachers for sketching pictures of evil American soldiers, like the one he shows me on his smartphone. He tells me the trick was to make them look as ugly and violent as possible.
He laughs about it now, saying he was brainwashed back then.
Choi says that he had a good life in Pyongyang; working as an animator for the government was a dream job. Employees received things like sacks of sugar, beef and refrigerators as gifts.
That was until he got in trouble with the authorities for possessing banned South Korean DVDs. Choi tried to escape to China but got caught and wound up in a labour camp.
Finally in 2010, he made it to South Korea and now lives with his mother who also defected.
There are about 30 thousand North Korean refugees in the South, and they face cultural and even linguistic differences that make resettlement difficult.
For Choi, one of the things that stood out to him at first was that cartoons here weren’t anything like the ones in the north.
“When I first saw South Korean cartoons, I just didn’t get them. There were no stories about patriotism or catching spies or war,” he said.” They just seemed useless to me.”
But last year, after six years in the South, Choi started his own satirical online comic strip series, a Webtoon, called Rodong Shimmun.
The cartoon follows a group of newly arrived refuges as they spend their first months in the South at a government–run integration centre, something that all defectors must do.
Choi pokes fun at their newbie-ness, like their shock about all the food at a buffet restaurant. Or during a field trip to one of Seoul’s tallest buildings- some of the characters were afraid to go to the top.
He also tells the story of one lovelorn defector, which Choi says is based on his own embarrassing misunderstanding.
“One time I met a South Korean woman who asked for my phone number and said she wanted to become my friend. I somehow misinterpreted that as she wanted to marry me,” he recalls.
In the comic, the woman uses a term of endearment that’s casually spoken in South Korea. In a text bubble, Choi explains how that caused mixed signals.
“In North Korea only romantic partners would say that to each other. Amongst friends, we just call each other comrade,” the comic reads.
Choi’s webtoon series gets tens of thousands of views. Some fans say it’s helped them better understand cultural differences between North and South Korea.
Others write they feel more empathetic now toward defectors.
Choi’s encouraged by those words because he says, many South Koreans just don’t care about North Korea or defectors.
But not everyone likes the comic. Choi says he’s received negative feedback from other North Korean refugees.
“Some defectors say I depict North Korea too negatively, that my cartoons hurt their pride. But, 90% say they like it, some even say if people back in the North see these they’d understand life in South Korea better,” he says.
It’s still surprising to me that Choi can find humour in North Korea at all- he tells me he’s pretty sure his sister died in a prison camp there.
I ask him how he does it.
“I don’t let the bad memories effect me. My humour today comes from my experiences during my childhood, I think a person’s sense of humour depends on how happy they were during those years.”
Choi adds that even if life is hell, you can always find some humour in it.