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North Korean Animators Reportedly Work on TV Shows Despite Ban

Invincible is supposedly one of them, but Skybound Entertainment denies any involvement.

Image credit: 38 North, Nick Roy

North Korea is a fascinating place for many people living outside it. The country is under strict control of the government, and other parts of the world limit it even more with their sanctions imposed mostly due to the state's nuclear weapons program and human rights abuse.

Despite restrictions, North Korean animators are allegedly involved in several TV shows, as discovered by cybersecurity researcher Nick Roy, who has studied the country's digital life for about 10 years. In late 2023, he found a cloud storage server containing files related to animation work

"Often the files contained editing comments and instructions in Chinese, presumably written by the production company, along with a translation of those instructions into Korean," said 38 North, which analyzed the findings. "This suggests a go-between was responsible for relaying information between the production companies and the animators."

For example, in one case, an animator was asked to improve the shape of the character’s head. As noted by GameSpot, some images appeared from an Amazon Prime Video superhero show and an upcoming children's anime at HBO.

So which shows supposedly used help from North Korean animators? Here is the list by 38 North:

  • Season 3 of Invincible, an Amazon Original animated series produced by California-based Skybound Entertainment. A document on the server carried the name of the series and Viltruminte Pants LLC, which appears to be part of the Skybound group.
  • Iyanu, Child of Wonder, an anime about a superhero created by Maryland-based YouNeek Studios and being produced and animated by Lion Forge Entertainment for airing in 2024 on HBO Max.
  • Dahliya In Bloom (魔導具師ダリヤはうつむかない), a Japanese anime series scheduled to air from July 2024.
  • Files named 猫 (Cat) that also carry the name of Ekachi Epilka, an animation studio in Hokkaido, Japan.
  • Video files that appear to be from Octonauts, a BBC children’s cartoon. The files had no additional identifying information and appeared to be completed, so it is possible these were not worked on by the animators.
  • An unidentified animation series with documents that refer to Dalian’s Shepherd Boy Animation (大连牧童动漫).

Skybound Entertainment responded to the accusation, saying it has no business with North Korea:

"We do not work with North Korean companies, or any affiliated entities, and have no knowledge of any North Korean companies working on our animation. Our policies strictly prohibit any subcontracting to any third-party without our express prior written consent, which, in this case, was neither sought nor granted. We also mandate that all our service providers fully comply with all applicable rules and regulations and prohibit disclosures of materials by our service providers to third parties.

Skybound Entertainment takes these allegations seriously and has initiated a thorough internal review to verify and rectify any potential issues. We have also notified the proper authorities and are cooperating with all appropriate bodies."

38 North concluded that North Korean workers frequently "misrepresent themselves as foreign" and can bypass the US sanctions using VPNs and other methods to continue working on international projects.

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