SEOUL, South Korea — Heinz Insu Fenkl, a literature professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, has cracked one secret to understanding the bizarre regime of North Korea: by reading its comic books.
The academic, who refers to himself as an American-Korean, spends hours in his office tucked away in upstate New York, churning out English translations of the rare books (called "gruim-chaek" in North Korea) after he gathers them at shops in China and from colleagues who travel to Pyongyang.
The plots are often wacky, usually pinning blame on loud-mouthed Americans and opportunist Japanese for cursing their promised land with vice. Most books are leaked to China through the border town of Dandong — a hub of smuggling in North Korean goods. Others end up in a single shop in Tokyo that specializes in hermit-state memorabilia. Still, others mysteriously make their way to university libraries in the U.S.
Of the "gruim-chaek" I’ve located, those published this decade tend to be spy thrillers probably aimed at young boys and teenagers. The cartoonists establish the storylines strictly as moralistic good-versus-evil tales. And almost all the books are printed in black-and-white on poor quality paper.
“I've also seen some covers of more recent comics that seem to be re-establishing a mythic narrative by referring back to old folktales,” Fenkl said, adding that he’s planning a single massive web archive for all his North Korean comic books.
The books are also designed to instill the father of North Korea, Kim Il-sung’s, philosophy of Juche — radical self-reliance of the state, added Nick Bonner, founder of Koryo Tours, an English-language tour company in Beijing that takes visitors to North Korea several times each year.
“They’re much like the themes I read when I was a kid, on the British Army fighting the ‘Nazis and Japs,’” Bonner reflected, pointing out that some propaganda plots nonetheless resemble our own. “But [in North Korea] their themes are either historic or based on the Anti-Japanese Guerilla War, or the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War [the North Korean name for the Korean War in 1950-53].”
In "A Blizzard in the Jungle," published in 2001, a group of Americans and North Koreans traveling on an airplane crash in an unnamed African country. When they’re stranded in the jungle, the Americans selfishly split ways with their North Korean colleagues, only to be devoured by alligators in a nearby river.
Let it be a warning from the Dear Leader: never embrace the self-indulging lifestyle of the American warmongers.
The fact that North Koreans were writing politically charged comic books set in Africa comes as no surprise, Fenkl said. Quite a few North Koreans live as expatriates on that continent: for years, North Korea has sent military advisers to Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ethiopia and Uganda to supply weapons and train soldiers in exchange for mineral concessions.
Strangely, one character onboard the crashed airplane is named Zacharias — possibly an allusion to Zacarias Moussaoui, a mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Twin Towers. "A Blizzard in the Jungle" was published in that same year, though Fenkl concedes this is probably a coincidence.
Other comic books directly point fingers at American leaders, rather than only bashing capitalism.
In a similar storyline from 2005 called "General Loser and the Gnats," Americans who go by the last name “Bush” find themselves disgraced by their president’s policies. They change their names and confide in the revolutionary cause. (I have not yet found satires on Barack Obama out of the hermit state.)
North Korea’s comic craze is nothing new. For decades, the communist regime has distributed books to elementary school students.
One of North Korea’s most famous comic books aimed at children is "The Great General Mighty Wing," an epic narrative published by a state-run press in 1994.
Mighty Wing the honeybee confronts a horde of imperialist wasps — cunningly dressed like Japanese soldiers from World War II — trying to invade his land. After the wasps lay dead, he quickly rallies his enthusiastic colony into a workers’ collective.
By working together, they build an extensive irrigation canal that flows abundantly to all the bees — not just the powerful wasps.
Concerned about a drought and famine that would eventually kill about 600,000 people, North Korea at the time was looking for ways purvey water to its people. The regime was constructing a large irrigation canal at the same time Mighty Wing became a sensation.
"Mighty Wing, in some ways, was an iconic image,” Fenkl said. “It was a brilliant move to use bees, or beol, as a symbol to resonate with the historical irrigation project, the Yeoldu 3,000 Ri Beol.”
“The books were in color, unlike most comics,” he added, pointing out the importance the regime might have placed on this cartoon.
Mighty Wing gained fame in North Korea at the same level of Mickey Mouse in the West, thanks to the national fears the artists touched on. Kim Il-sung had died that same year — and many North Koreans were secretly uncertain about what would come next.
In his research, Fenkl recently noticed one anomaly: the "gruim-chaek" that reaches the international black market usually differs from those intended for a North Korean audience.
It appears that the editors “step in,” he said, imputing the black-market comics with less ideological content. This could mean they are purposely sending the comics across the sealed Chinese border to expand their readership.
“I will have to look into it before I come to any conclusions. 'The Crystal Key,’ for example, is pretty indistinguishable from a non-ideological comic book,” he reflected, referring to another famous book published in 1992. “[With the ideological content taken out] it would be an internationally accessible graphic novel about pirates and a virtuous family protecting their community.”