04/22/2024, 18.38
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North Korea evades sanctions even in cartoons (thanks to Beijing)

According to an investigation by 38 North, which monitored a North Korean cloud server in January 2024, North Korean workers appear to have worked on animation projects by Amazon and HBO Max studios after the latter subcontracted some of the work to Chinese firms, which did the same with North Korean firms.


Rome (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Despite sanctions on North Korea, US companies like Amazon and HBO Max may have made unknowingly use of North Korean workers in animation projects, this according to a report by 38 North, a website dedicated to North Korea.

US Multinationals often subcontract some of their work to Chinese firms, which in turn do the same with North Korean firms. This suggests the US giants were not knowingly involved with North Korean partners.

The situation highlights one of the many ways the North Korean regime circumvents with China’s help restrictions imposed by the international community.

The possibility that North Korean workers might be involved in making Western-produced animated films began to gain ground after a team of researchers monitored files on a North Korean server in January 2024.

Nick Roy, who runs the NK Internet blog, realised in late 2023 that the cloud server had been incorrectly configured, making the daily flow of files into and out of this server viewable by anyone without a password.

Such servers are used in North Korea because local IT workers do not have direct access to the Internet. Typically, North Korean IT workers need approval to use them and are monitored while they do so.

“Each day, a new batch of files would appear that included instructions for animation work and the results of that day's work," said the report, which was released today in Washington.

The analysed files include animations, written instructions, and comments that appear to refer to production projects for foreign studios.

One production is Invincible, an Amazon Original animated series produced by California-based Skybound Entertainment, and Iyanu, Child of Wonder, a superhero anime created by Maryland-based YouNeek Studios, which will air this year on HBO Max.

This suggests that the United States and North Korea entertain relations even though sanctions prohibit almost all trade with North Korea.

The US Treasury Department designated the Pyongyang-based April 26 Animation Studio, also known as SEK Studio, as a North Korean state-owned enterprise and put it under sanctions, as were Chinese companies that worked with it in 2021 and 2022.

However, it is not easy to find out whether these ties were known to anyone since what brought them to light was a security flaw.

Amazon declined to comment and referred Reuters to Skybound Entertainment. The latter said that it would launch an internal review. HBO Max and YouNeek did not respond to requests for comment.

The files that were found contained editing comments and instructions in Chinese and Korean. This suggests that someone relayed information between the production firms and animators, probably a Chinese front company.

Three IP addresses were in China, two registered to Liaoning Province, which is on the border with North Korea. However, the 38 North report notes that the identity of the people involved could not be determined.

It seems that working with foreign studios are not new for North Korean firms. April 26 Animation Studio, for example, has worked on international projects in the past.

Choi Seong-guk, a North Korean web cartoonist, who defected, worked at SEK Studio between 1996 and 2002; he told Reuters that a team was assigned to work jointly with foreign studios, which is more profitable than working with North Korean studios.

Several of Choi’s fellow cartoonists left to work overseas, mostly in China, classified as construction workers but hired instead to create animation products for Chinese clients.

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