Oddly Enough

Iconic South Korean penguin character actually half-North Korean

SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - He’s roly poly, wears a yellow aviator’s helmet and orange goggles, and is everywhere in South Korea. But the cartoon character Pororo the Little Penguin also had a secret in his past: his origins are half-North Korean.

A baby looks at the cartoon character Pororo at a book store in Seoul May 16, 2011. REUTERS/Truth Leem

The recent revelations surprised South Korea, where the mischievous penguin character, whose films have been exported to over 100 countries, is so beloved he’s known as “the children’s President” because his influence is said to be greater than the nation’s real leader.

But as time passes the fact of his ancestry has won Pororo new fans -- and prompted some to call for him to help make the to call for his help in making the two neighbours one again.

“Pororo, you are the real president of the Korean peninsula,” one blog comment read.

Pororo, who first debuted in 2003, is ubiquitous in South Korea, featured on everything from stick-on bandages to coffee mugs. Stamps with his image have sold more than those bearing the image of Olympic figure-skating champion Kim Yu-na, according to local media.

But few knew that North Korean cartoonists worked with their Southern counterparts to jointly produce part of the first two seasons of the television series that launched the bird to fame.

“This isn’t something that needs to be secret but by accident people found out that Pororo was partly produced in the North,” said Kim Jong-se, a senior official at Iconix Entertainment, the South Korean production company that developed Pororo.

“They gave us many responses, from very negative to very positive -- we are a collaborator of the North or, it is great that both Koreas made the show together.”

After the leaders of North and South Korea signed a landmark peace pact in 2000 pledging new cooperative steps, Pororo was one of the inter-Korean businesses that developed, Kim said.

South Korean technicians went to the North to train their colleagues there. Production hit a snag when the North suddenly replaced its staff for the second season, forcing Kim’s company to repeat the teaching process, Kim said.

The North Korean participation took place between 2002 and 2005, ending when ties deteriorated between the two nations and the North could no longer join the project. Relations chilled further with get-tough policies under President Lee Myung-bak, who took office in 2008.

Now, with people feeling that the little penguin has ties to their prickly northern neighbour, regarded by many as a long-lost sibling, people are taking new interest in him.

“It makes Pororo look cooler since the North and South birthed it together,” said one blogger.

But hopes that North Korea can return to the project are unlikely to bear fruit soon. After two deadly attacks on South Korean territory last year, ties between the two are worse than they’ve been in years.

“Crossing the border to teach skills to new North Korean colleagues isn’t going to be any easier, and so many things are unpredictable,” Kim said.

Editing by Elaine Lies