Whether it's the latest Star Wars film or the upcoming X-Files reboot, Western audiences can't seem to get enough of repackaged versions of classic pop culture. This year alone, movie theaters have shown films like Poltergeist and Vacation; there are remakes in the works onGremlins, Ghostbusters, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids—all popular films from the 1980s and 90s.
In North Korea, the recent return of one of the most popular cartoon shows from that era hints at similar stirrings of nostalgia. In late August, on the directive of Korean leader Kim Jong-un, The Boy General aired its first new episode in almost two decades—only now, the animation is better, the hero is all grown up, and the cartoon serves as propaganda for the state.
The Boy General tells the tale of a brave child warrior who battles marauding Japanese and Chinese invaders during the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo, which ruled most of the Korean Peninsula and parts of China from the 1st century BC to the 7th century AD. The first episode, which aired in the early 80s, revolves around the young hero, who goes by the moniker "iron hammer," retrieving the sword of his slain father, so beginning his epic quest to defend the kingdom. The original series of 50 episodes aired intermittently until 1997, and was extremely popular.
"Children, adults—it's a cartoon everyone with some spare time watches," said Sharon Jang, a 23-year-old North Korean defector who fled the country in 2011. Now that she lives outside of North Korea, she's begun watching the show on YouTube, where most of the episodes can now be found.
The relaunch was so highly anticipated that many residents in the capital Pyongyang gathered in public to watch the first new episode, even in the midst of tense inter-Korean talks held to defuse recent tensions between the North and South, according to the Associated Press, which has a bureau in the North Korean capital.
Andray Abrahamian, director of research at Choson Exchange, a nonprofit that teaches business skills to North Koreans, similarly witnessed people "transfixed" by the show on a trip to the capital last month.
"Nearly everyone was glued to the screens," Abrahamian told me, describing the scene at Munsu Water Park during an airing of one of the new episodes. "And even if they had to work, shop attendants and bar staff were trying to sneak a peek too. Some kids stopped swimming and watersliding to watch, too. It really seemed to transcend generations."
The return of The Boy General is thanks to another young warrior of sorts: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a.k.a. Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army. In November, the Korean Central News Agency, the regime's media mouthpiece, reported that Kim visited the Scientific Educational Korea animation studio, where he announced that his people would be "glad" to see the production of another 50 episodes of the cartoon.
According to the news agency, Kim called on animators to make cartoons that would teach children about the "history, brilliant culture, and excellent traditions of the Korean nation." With its strongly nationalistic flavor, The Boy General fits the bill nicely.
Christopher Richardson, who has researched children's culture in North Korea and recently completed a doctoral thesis on the subject for the University of Sydney, said the series is ideal propaganda for the regime, since the cartoon constantly portrays the country as under threat from foreign powers.
"It's that constant dichotomy between the 'pure' Korean race and nation, and the toxins from outside," Richardson told me.
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In The Boy General, foreign invaders are sent to their maker in droves, sometimes skewered in a row, kebab-like, with swords and spears. The enemies' moral degeneracy is reinforced by their shabby dress, and is even written on their strikingly ugly faces—snaggletooths and pig noses abound. The Koreans, by contrast, are generally beautiful and well dressed.
Richardson said the timing of the relaunch, several years into the young dictator's rule, recalls the flurry of new episodes released in the late 80s, when North Korea's previous leader Kim Jong-il was being groomed to take over from his father, nation founder Kim Il-sung.
After a lull in new episodes, Kim Jong-il reportedly ordered the production of five of the ten initially-planned installments to be finished in a two-month period during 1988. Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the current leader, died in 1994, leaving the leadership to Kim Jong-il.
"I think it's not a coincide that it coincided with the period of time of Kim Jong-il consolidating his influence behind the scenes in the propaganda and entertainment department, and absolutely was part of the state's drive to lay the groundwork for the first succession in North Korea," Richardson told me.
Richardson added that the remake is an example of the "fine balancing act" the regime is undertaking by modernizing classic nationalist narratives, as unprecedented amounts of foreign culture flood the so-called Hermit Kingdom. In recent years, North Koreans have gained previously unimaginable access to a wide array of foreign films and television shows, among other foreign products, through black markets. Popular titles are then swapped furtively among friends and neighbors using USB sticks, CDs, and DVDs.
"I think the state is paralyzed with indecision and fear, probably, and so this sort of 'old wine in new bottles' approach to cultural production is kind of the compromise position," said Richardson. "Because they know if they try to conduct a sort of final solution for foreign culture and these sort of yellow winds of capitalism, they'll lose."
But whatever the intentions of the government, for many North Koreans, the cartoon may be taken as just that: a cartoon, and one that people enjoy.
"I don't know about patriotism," said Jang. "I just watch it because it features varied, interesting characters."
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