South Korea’s Pororo penguin takes flight worldwide

South Korean animator Choi Jong-Il knew he had a hit on his hands when Pororo the penguin hopped on to TV screens back in 2003.

Choi’s previous creations had failed to grab the undivided attention of his six-year-old son and his son’s friends.

That all changed when the mischievous but affectionate blue and white penguin, sporting aviator glasses and a flying helmet, made his debut.

“The kids’ eyes were glued to the TV … they never touched other toys as long as Pororo was on,” Choi told Agence France-Presse in an interview.

Pororo, whose dream is to fly, has taken off big-time since then. In South Korea he has been dubbed the “children’s president” and his image appears on everything from cellphones to chopsticks.


Iconix, which Choi started in 2001 with six employees, has grown into one of the nation’s biggest animation studios with two subsidiaries and 160 workers.

Pororo has been sold to 110 countries and helped Iconix garner 27-billion won ($25-million) in sales last year.

Sales will grow to 38-billion won by the end of this year thanks to rising popularity overseas, particularly in China and south-east Asia, Choi said.

Funding difficulties
Korean animators have talent and experience. In South Korea, they helped bring the Simpsons to life, along with SpongeBob and other characters.

And a studio in hardline communist North Korea, working as a subcontractor, helped flesh out Pororo.

“They did a pretty good job … North Korea actually does a lot of animation subcontracting jobs, especially European countries like Italy,” Choi said.

But the collaboration fizzled out due to difficulties in phone calls and other communications across the divided peninsula.

In South Korea, a lack of investment has made it harder for animators to progress beyond being subcontractors, said Stella Suh, director of the animation industry team at the state-run Korea Creative Content Agency.

“South Korea has top-class world capability in animation production, but creating independent animation films is all about funding,” she said.

“The government has offered some financial aid but it’s hardly enough. Many [animators] still find it so difficult to find any major source of funding to kickstart a new project.”

No adults, please
Thanks to Pororo, Iconix is the exception.

“Going global is inevitable given the small size of the domestic market … I think our overseas sales will outpace our domestic sales by 2020,” Choi said.

His creed was to create a cartoon that offers nothing but fun.

“Most cartoons for pre-school children aim to educate them through different forms of lectures, typically delivered through adult characters squeezed in a story,” said the 45-year-old former advertising manager.

Pororo does not preach — he just goes out and has fun in his Arctic setting with friends including Petty the female penguin, Poby the Polar bear, Crong the green dinosaur and Eddy the fox. There are no adults.

Internet chatrooms soon started to buzz with parents expressing gratitude that Pororo gave them a break from restless children.

The character was chosen as a goodwill ambassador for Visit Korea Year. More than three million limited-edition stamp sets of Pororo were sold out in 10 days in March.

The characters appear on more than 1 500 merchandise items from clothes and cellphones to chopsticks and bankbooks, helping Iconix earn more than 90% of its revenue from royalty fees.

“Merchandise tie-in is where the money mostly comes from. But kids won’t beg parents to buy the products unless they loved the original animation film and its characters,” Choi said.

Universal acceptance
Choi, citing government data, estimated the country’s overall merchandise character market at about six-trillion won, far bigger than the underlying cartoon animation film market worth 700-billion won.

The state-run Seoul Business Agency estimates Pororo’s brand value at 389.3-billion won, based on its forecast economic impact over the next 30 years.

Choi refuses tie-ins with items such as toy guns or junk food franchises. He also resisted pressure from thousands of internet users to feature Pororo eating a traditional Korean meal.

“Featuring our own traditional traits may alienate child viewers in other cultures … I want my characters to be accepted universally, with no attachment to a certain cultural background,” he said.

Choi’s dream is an entertainment empire for all generations, like Disney.

“Now my son is 14 … he still loves Pororo, but I want to keep making new animations for him to enjoy as he and other Pororo fans grow older.” — AFP

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

The Portfolio: David Phume

Animator, roboticist and artist David Phume is on a mission to show that technology is not just for the geniuses in Silicon Valley

Nakanjani, Dada Khanyisa’s got a good feeling

Artist Dada Khanyisa on responding to the opportunities that their practice offers them, by all means necessary

So much to give

Present Tense

The mystical everyday

The world is hilariously strange yet beautifully familiar in Jonas Lekganyane’s animated series

Local animation shows it’s quick on the draw at film fest

South Africa’s animation industry is gaining global traction, thanks to showcases such as the Cape Town International Animation Festival.

Long division pares down dream of a unified Korea

Younger South Koreans worry that merging the countries would crush their successful society.
Advertising

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Sefako Makgatho University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati had interdicted parliament last month from continuing with the inquiry

Constitutional Court ruling on restructuring dispute is good for employers

A judgment from the apex court empowers employers to change their workers’ contracts — without consultation

Audi Q8: Perfectly cool

The Audi Q8 is designed to be the king in the elite SUV class. But is it a victim of its own success?

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday