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(Yonhap Feature) Web cartoonist from N. Korea trying to bridge cultural gap widened by 70 years of division

2018/03/08 09:00

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By Chang Jae-soon

SEOUL, March 8 (Yonhap) -- Choi Seong-guk couldn't understand why his mentor-cum-boss was upset one day while working at a computer software firm in Seoul that he had just joined months after fleeing from North Korea in 2010.

The boss said Choi hadn't done what he was told to do, but Choi thought he had never received the order.

"I was very surprised at the time because I didn't consider it an order when he just told me in a passing way, 'I hope you can do this,'" Choi said. "In North Korea, we're always told directly by the boss that we must do something and we say in response that we would risk our lives to do that."

   Episodes like this abound among North Korean defectors trying to adapt to a nation where the same language is spoken, but the way words are used and understood is different from in their former communist homeland -- increasingly so after more than 70 years of division.

Choi Seong-guk, a Web cartoonist, poses for a photo at his office in this undated photo provided by him. (Yonhap) Choi Seong-guk, a Web cartoonist, poses for a photo at his office in this undated photo provided by him. (Yonhap)

Choi, 38, who graduated from the North's best art college, Pyongyang Art University, and then worked as a cartoonist at the state-run children's animation production studio, is using such episodes for a Web cartoon he's publishing on South Korea's most popular web portal, Naver.

The weekly webtoon, titled "Rodong Shimmun," a parody of the North's main Rodong Shinmun newspaper, comically portrays the experiences fresh North Korean defectors go through after arriving in the South in a way that illustrates the cultural and language differences between the two Koreas.

Recent episodes are about how people in North Korea go about their daily lives, such as what foods North Koreans usually eat, how they date, what North Korean homes look like and how widespread South Korean dramas and songs are in one of the most closed nations on Earth.

Launched in 2016, the webtoon gained a good level of popularity, with some of the episodes collecting close to 100,000 views. These stories were compiled and published in a book series under the title, "In Search of Freedom," in January.

"Responses were like, 'Is North Korea really like this?' and 'This is good for learning,'" Choi said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency by phone. "I received a lot of questions from students. This shows how ignorant people have been about North Korea and that they had no interest in it."

   Choi said he felt like he became the "supreme leader" when he saw the long queue of fans waiting to get his autograph at a book signing event. He is also scheduled to hold a "book concert" organized by the Korean Bar Association later this month.

One of the most popular episodes in Choi's webtoon was about a defector who mistook friendly gestures from a female co-worker, such as her calling him a friend and asking for his phone number, for signs that she's romantically interested in him.

Such misunderstanding stems mainly from the differences in culture and the usage of the word "friend." In North Korea, friendship between a man and a woman means only that they're in a relationship, and it is unthinkable for a woman to first ask for a man's phone number, Choi said, adding that the story is based on his personal experience.

Other defectors have also praised Choi's works, saying the cartoons remind them of when they were struggling to settle in the South and that they portray the cultural differences between the two sides very well, he said.

"My ultimate goal is to help people from the South and the North better understand each other," he said. "People in the South can get to know about the reality of North Korea, while defectors, especially those who have recently arrived in the South, can use my works in the course of their settling down here. I've heard that my webtoon is much more practical than any other resettlement manuals."

   In North Korea, Choi had a "dream job" as an employee at the children's animation studio. Benefits provided to employees by the state included one bottle of cooking oil, one kilogram of beef and one kilogram of sugar every month, even when state rations were suspended.

In addition, they were also given a TV set, a refrigerator, a washing machine or a bicycle once a year as a bonus depending on their performance. They could also be given an opportunity to travel abroad, a huge privilege in the North, where overseas trips are usually only possible for people who have a child back home, a hostage system designed to prevent them from defecting while overseas.

But Choi quit the studio after learning that foreign co-workers there, such as those from Italy and France, receive much higher salaries than North Korean staff, even though their skill levels are similar. He said he wanted to start his own business to make more money.

That was the beginning of a big change in his life.

At first, he used a connection to state-authorized traders to import broken computers from overseas and used parts from them to assemble new computers for sale. After discovering South Korean dramas in the hard disks of broken computers, Choi made more money by making video CDs of the dramas.

The video CD business, however, put him in trouble.

After finding out that Choi was selling South Korean dramas, authorities sent him from Pyongyang to the remote east coast city of Riwon in South Hamgyong Province as punishment. Members of his family -- his parents, a sister and a nephew -- were also detained briefly.

It was at that time that Choi decided to flee the North. He used the money he made from selling computers and video CDs to first get his family out of the country. After serving a prison term and receiving other punishment for his family's escape, Choi also succeeded in getting himself out in 2010.

Choi said he saw firsthand the power of culture in changing North Korean people.

As South Korean movies and dramas became popular, more and more North Koreans learned about the reality across the heavily fortified border. People also made and sold clothes and other items that appeared in those movies and dramas, such as the school uniform worn by actress Moon Geun-young in the 2004 movie "My Little Bride" and furniture that appeared in the popular 2004 TV drama "Lovers in Paris," he said.

Choi said he doesn't believe North Korea's leadership will ever change or give up its nuclear program and that one of the most effective ways to undermine the regime so as to bring about a change in the country is through culture and outside information.

"As a government policy, we should send things like CDs (into the North) in massive numbers," he said.

Choi said he hopes not only to continue to draw cartoons, but also to produce movies about these cultural differences between the South and the North.

"Ultimately, I hope my works will serve as a channel for the South and the North to understand each other," he said. "Though there are a lot of North Korean defectors here, I think it is my unique talent to create cartoon stories that both sides can sympathize with."