North Korean Animators Secretly Worked on Western Cartoons

In this post:

  • A North Korea based studio is suspected of having created cartoonish animations for Western firms.
  • Big brand names like HBO Max and Amazon cartoons and anime have been supposedly made by Korean animators.
  • Chinese middle firms are supposedly responsible for communication between Western producers and North Korean studios.

North Korea is under international sanctions and cannot trade with other countries, but North Korean animators are doubted to have worked on famous cartoons for big brand companies that include HBO Max and Amazon.

North Korean animators are making western cartoons

A Washington based research organization, 38 North, whose main focus of research is North Korean affairs, has said in a report that they discovered some files on an internet server of the country that hinted at the possibility of under-production projects for Western studios, including written instructions and comments regarding the work and also some animations. 

The projects that North Koreans were supposedly working on included an Amazon Original animated series “Invincible,” which is produced by Skybound Entertainment based in California, and an HBO Max project created by YouNeek Studios based in Maryland for an anime of a superhero character, which is planned to be aired this year.

Researchers have not found any indications about the fact if Western companies had any knowledge of the animators sitting in North Korea while working on their projects, as these appeared to be subcontracted to China, according to Michael Barnhart, a researcher who worked on this issue with 38 North and is himself employed at a Google owned computer security company called Mandiant. Barnhart said,

“There’s no way that anyone could have known it, except for the operational security error which exposed it.”

Source: Reuters.

Chinese middle firms were supposedly communicating between the companies

This time, April 26 Animation Studio, which seems to be another name for Sek Studio, is suspected to be working on the cartoons. According to 38 North, it’s a state-owned entity and a North Korean business, and it seems like a Chinese middle firm was responsible for communicating between the Western producers and animators.

US sanctions don’t allow almost any commercial conduct between its own citizens and North Korean outfits. Sek Studios first came on the radar back in 2016 and was sanctioned by the US through its Treasury Department, followed by sanctions on some Chinese studios in 2022 that were considered potential partners of Set Studios.

Skybound says that it has taken the allegations seriously and is performing an internal review diligently to get to the core of the issue and rectify any potential loopholes, but it insisted that it had no knowledge about any North Korean studios working on their animations. Hannah Cosgrove, Skybound’s corporate communications head, said,

“We have also notified the proper authorities and are cooperating with all appropriate bodies.”

Source: Reuters.

According to the report, after the researchers discovered the files, two researchers were appointed to keep a watch and observe the server. These two kept a watch for the entire month of January to observe the traffic and found that a new batch of files was uploaded along with instructions for the work every day. They also found that results for every day’s animation work were also uploaded. 

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