Choi fled to freedom in South Korea, where he has managed to turn his frightening experiences into a laugh-out-loud online comic strip.
SEOUL — There's a rumor that parts of the Lion King were animated in an unlikely place: North Korea. But Choi Seong-gok, 37, doesn't believe it. 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 cafe in Seoul, South Korea, where he now lives. "We made our own versions of the Lion King, Pocahontas as well as an animated Titanic movie. I'm guessing that this rumor about the studio working for Disney began because of these movies," he says.
The studio made the knock-off cartoons for television networks overseas, he explains.
Choi says he's had a knack for drawing 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 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. But that was before 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 labor camp. Finally, in 2010, he made it to South Korea and now lives with his mother, who also defected. The mother and son are among an estimated 30,000 North Korean refugees in the South, where 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 says. "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 refugees as they spend their first months in the South at a government–run integration center, something all defectors must do. Choi pokes fun at their newbie-ness, like their shock about all the food at a buffet restaurant. In another edition, refugees visiting some of Seoul's tallest buildings are afraid to go to the top.
We made our own versions of the Lion King, Pocahontas as well as an animated Titanic movie.
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 coveys intimacy in North Korea but is casually spoken in the South. 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 the two Koreas. Others write that they feel more empathetic now toward defectors. Choi is 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," he says. "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."
It's still surprising to me that Choi can find humor in North Korea at all, especially given that his sister most likely died in a prison camp there. I ask him how he does it. "I don't let the bad memories affect me," he says. "My humor today comes from my experiences during my childhood. I think a person's sense of humor depends on how happy they were during those years."