Arts and Entertainment

The Entertainment Value of North Korean Propaganda

“Squirrel and Hedgehog,” running from 1977 to 2013, is one of North Korea’s most popular cartoons.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Vivian Teo

One of the best ways to discern a country’s values is to look at the kinds of stories it creates. For example, Western entertainment is saturated with individualistic philosophy about unrestricted freedom being the ideal, while Eastern entertainment leans toward lessons about conformity and unity, suggesting differences in how these cultures value the individual versus the whole. However, the cultural values of a work’s country of origin can be incredibly difficult to ascertain: nations are far from monolithic, and the values of two citizens of the same country can contrast wildly. In contrast, the oversight of North Korean leaders in the propaganda cartoon “Squirrel and Hedgehog”––to the point that even the animation wasn’t outsourced––makes its reflections of its country’s culture very direct, resulting in a visual to outsiders of what the average North Korean is taught to value.

Scientific Educational Korea Studio’s “Squirrel and Hedgehog,” running from 1977 to 2013, is one of North Korea’s most popular cartoons. The show ran for two seasons, the first lasting 26 episodes and the second lasting for seven. The first season centers around the two squirrels Juldarami and Geumsaegi as they infiltrate the malevolent weasels (going by the spy team moniker “Pangulggot”), foiling the weasels’ plans to conquer Flower Hill. The wolves become the major antagonists of the second season, with Geumsaegi’s brother Bamsaegi replacing Juldarami as the second protagonist. Field mouse Mulmangcho is the primary antagonist throughout both seasons, serving under multiple enemy forces and seeking to reveal Geumsaegi as Flower Hill’s spy. While the seasons can certainly be watched alongside each other, one can also watch either season on its own and come away with a full story.

The first season of this cartoon is decent, with interesting fight scenes, character designs, and setting. The animation starts off rough, but it gets noticeably better with each episode, eventually even sporting elements of CGI. The songs and musical motifs are great, too, and are probably the highlight of the first season. The second season, meanwhile, transforms Geumsaegi from a generic protagonist to a cunning war veteran, making him a proper foil to his naive younger brother. The episodes are also structured better, with a more sensible plot progression. My only complaint is that the strong musical motifs of the first season were almost entirely tossed aside. However, while “Squirrel and Hedgehog” is a fine cartoon, it’s also nationalistic propaganda and serves as a glimpse into how North Korea manipulates its children.

One way “Squirrel and Hedgehog” manipulates its audience is through its setting. Flower Hill is depicted as a paradise––through beautiful scenery, a bright color palette, and always being in the midst of celebration––that its inhabitants rightfully seek to defend with their very lives. The outside world, on the other hand, is only ever depicted through military bases and ravaged villages: dangerous and full of enemies, with Flower Hill’s soldiers constantly longing to be back home. The characters’ love for Flower Hill is meant as a guide for how the viewers should feel about North Korea.

“Squirrel and Hedgehog” also manipulates its citizens’ views of the world through its character designs, using different animals to represent different political forces. The protagonists of the show are squirrels, hedgehogs, and ducks, representing the North Korean government, military, and navy. The enemy mice, weasels, and wolves represent South Korea, Japan, and America, respectively. These different sides are depicted as the “good” Flower Hill versus the “evil” imperialistic forces that seek to bring it to ruin: there is no nuance or in between. This mentality is applied directly to the viewers at the beginning of every episode, during which a squirrel and a hedgehog salute at a camera and address the audience directly as “friends.” The message is clear: North Korea is good, and those who oppose it are evil.

Aside from “good,” the creatures of Flower Hill are depicted in several interesting ways. They’re drawn with larger, rounder eyes; softer bodies; and even shorter statures than most of the enemies, with the only exception being the mice. Even the animals they’re modeled after are all cuter, friendlier-looking animals, especially compared to weasels, wolves, and crows. The illustrations of the Flower Hill animals indicate that they are the friends, allies, and underdogs.

While the enemies are all shown as evil, they are still depicted in different ways. In the first season, the first enemies we’re introduced to are the weasels, when we watch them pillage a town and take its inhabitants as slaves. Throughout the rest of the series, they are continuously characterized as savage, self-serving, cowardly, untrustworthy, and cunning (though never quite as clever as the squirrels from Flower Hill). In the second season, however, the first thing we notice about the wolves is that, well, they aren’t just wolves. In the wolves’ ranks, there’s also a fox, an alligator, and many other animals, a possible reference to the diversity of the American forces in comparison to North Korea. The wolves are also written with dialogue conveying significantly more guile. The enemies and the creatures of Flower Hill alike frequently refer to the wolves as significantly more threatening than the weasels, with the weasels even acknowledging the wolves as their superiors. Even the designs play into this dominance: while the weasels are large, they’re also depicted as rather overweight, unlike the wolves, who are drawn with muscular figures not present in anyone else in the show.

The characterization of the mice is most compelling. The mice are the subordinates of the weasels––frequently mistreated, looked down upon, and exploited by their superiors, even though they share many of the same villainous traits––which may be inspired by the dynamic between Japanese soldiers and South Korean citizens during Japan’s occupation of South Korea. Of all the enemies, the mice are given the most sympathetic characterization. We first see them being mistreated by the weasels, who the audience is already primed to hate thanks to the first episode’s opening scene. In the few instances during which the enemies show genuine affection toward one another in ways that even scantily reflect the constant affection between the comrades of Flower Hill, at least one mouse is always involved. When the mice act cowardly, they do so in ways that seem almost harmless. Unlike the weasels, who fight each other for personal power just as often as they fight Flower Hill, the mice only ever seem to want to survive. When Geumsaegi, Juldarami, or any other squirrel goes undercover, they do so as field mice.

On an individual level, names are also used to draw lines between good and evil. Almost every enemy is referred to either by title (General Commander, Black Weasel, and Lieutenant Vixen) or number (Field Mouse Number Six). The only exceptions are the recurring antagonistic mice brothers Mulmangcho and Oegwipali. The allies, meanwhile, consistently refer to each other by their names, serving to humanize the creatures of Flower Hill and dehumanize those who oppose it. With the “good” and “evil” sides set, “Squirrel and Hedgehog” contrasts them against one another to instruct their viewers on “right” versus “wrong.”

One interesting value that the show preaches is the importance of revenge, which starkly contrasts many Western cartoons. On all sides of the conflict, characters are shown promising to avenge their fallen comrades. This action is treated as the proper way to show respect to the dead. Revenge is a prominent virtue in the show, frequently appearing in dialogue, action, and even the lyrics of the songs sung to the audience. There’s also a scene when, as revenge for Geumsaegi ripping off his tail, Mulmangcho promises to do the same to his young brother Bamsaegi. There is also a constant warning to never let your guard down. This message is the lesson that characters most often relay to both one another and to the audience, and the few characters who slip up learn their lesson the hard way.

Most interestingly of all, this cartoon is undeniably meant to raise its citizens with a wartime mentality. If the central characters all representing the government, army, and navy didn’t give that away, then their lessons toward their audience certainly do. Brutal violence is shown on screen with a level of nonchalance that suggests violence is the norm and the right way to treat the enemies of Flower Hill—and, by extent, the enemies of North Korea.

“Squirrel and Hedgehog” functions as an entertaining cartoon, a scant look into North Korean culture, and a prime example of how propaganda is used to influence people. Seeing media from any other culture can give people fresh perspectives on their own, whether it be in seeing how they portray us as Americans or how they treat American cultural values. Furthermore, understanding the mentality behind foreign propaganda is a fantastic way to develop one’s own critical eye, which can then critique the messages our own media presents to us. Even without these things, however, this show can still be entertaining in its own right, whether it be through its crazy fight scenes, its political espionage, or its brilliant musical scores.