Finding Humor In A Harrowing Escape From North Korea

Choi fled to freedom in South Korea, where he has managed to turn his frightening experiences into a laugh-out-loud online comic strip.

Cartoonist and animator Choi Seong-gok
Cartoonist and animator Choi Seong-gok
Jason Strother

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.

Cultural confusion

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."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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