Gunfights, explosions, bloods and piles of bodies – there seem to be almost no limits to violence when it comes to the children's cartoon Squirrel and Hedgehog, North Korea's first and perhaps most successful multi-part animated series. In its home country, there's hardly a man, woman or child who doesn't know about the cartoon, which shows the exploits of brave woodland critters as they bravely fight off hordes of evil machinegun-totting weasels, mice and wolves with savvy and some heavy firepower.
Aimed at children, the series' odd penchant for violence and militarist themes has earned it notoriety in some corners of the internet among Western viewers, particularly since the 'evil' anthropomorphic creatures are obviously meant to represent the Americans, Japanese, and the South Korean government. However, as RIA Novosti contributor Andrei Olfert has discovered, selfless defense of the motherland is not the only lesson North Korean animators seeks to inculcate in the country's young generation.
Juche or Death
The original four-part series of Squirrel and Hedgehog first aired between 1977 and 1982. In its time, the show essentially created a new genre: an animated children's action show with elements of espionage and drama. In the show, the 'good guy' woodland critters, including squirrel commanders, army hedgehogs and navy ducks, match up against the above-mentioned 'bad guy' factions to defend their home, Flower Hill. Friendly bears (representing the Soviet Union) sometimes appear to assist the critters in their fight. The show focuses on a reconnaissance squad's repeated efforts to escape capture while uncovering the secret plans of the commander of the weasels, thus foiling a broader enemy attack.
An updated sequel series, featuring new animation, characters and storylines, was released in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Communist Bloc, at a time when North Korean leader Kim Jong-il introduced the Songun 'military first' doctrine, which prioritized the Korean People's Army in the allocation of resources and increased its importance political and economic life.
"There could not have been a better suited role model for the younger generations than the cute squirrels and hedgehogs who were willing to take any risk and make every sacrifice for the sake of their beloved homeland, during the grave crisis faced by North Korea in the 1990s," Olfert explained. "Therefore, one of the distinguishing features of the revived series were scenes of self-sacrifice. Hedgehogs and ducks blew themselves up with grenades, carried out deadly ramming missions, and demonstrated all other manner of devotion to Flower Hill and its leaders."
The updated series continued for a few dozen episodes, before concluding in 2012 with episode 32.
Those Cursed Yankees
Even though its television run has ended, Squirrel and Hedgehog have remained one of the most widely-recognizable cartoon characters, with children often gaining their first exposure to them in kindergarten.
"And even though the animated series can hardly be called a children's show, for North Korea, which has been living in a state of unfinished war with the United States for over half a century, numerous violent scenes are deemed understandable and acceptable. After all, the enemy is said to be even more cruel [in real life], and constantly hatching plans for the enslavement or even the extermination of the peaceful homeland," Olfert wrote.
However, notwithstanding its provocative and propagandistic character and its obvious allusions to the identity of the 'bad guys', Squirrel and Hedgehog is actually a fairly nuanced work, according to the journalist, particularly when compared to the kind of animation that was created at the dawn of North Korea's animation production. In the early days, the enemy often appeared not in the form of animals, but as actual American soldiers. Perhaps the most striking example in this vein is the early-1960s short film 'The Burned Squad of Blowflies'. The cartoon depicts the US military's attempts to engage in biological warfare against North Korea using insects infected with cholera.
Another example, 1967's 'Ticking Timebomb', "is more politically correct, but not by much," Olfert noted. "It shows an American soldier who has been instructed to blow up a hut that has the inscription 'US military, get out!' He sets the bomb close to a sick little girl who is sleeping there. She is rescued just in time by her brother, who hangs the bomb on the neck of the officer's dog, who brings it to its master at the command center of the US forces."
"But not all North Korea is about the horrors of American aggression and endless skirmishes," Olfert stressed. "Rather, Squirrel and Hedgehog is the exception rather among a large variety of more peaceful children's cartoons."
On Guard for the Motherland
Another of the longest-running and most popular animated series created by North Korean animators is 'The Young Warriors of Koguryo', a series debutting in the 80s and featuring the story of a young soldier's path to leadership during the Goguryeo, the ancient state situated in the Korean peninsula and part of Manchuria from 37 BC to 668 CE. The main character has supernatural powers, can smash his enemies with his fists and fly — almost like a North Korean version of Superman. With an original run of 50 episodes, the series was revived in 2015, reportedly under the personal initiative of Kim Jong-un.
That Clever Racoon
And alongsiding combating a foreign enemy and strengthening the state, sports and other forms of competition are another of the major themes in North Korean animation. "Here," Olfert noted, "the most popular is the 'Clever Racooon' series." For many years, he has served as one of the DPRK's multi-purpose heroes. "The character was features in 63 episodes between 1987 and 2012. Together with a bear and a kitten, the raccoon participates in everything from racing on mountain cliffs, to learns sports like baseball and wakeboarding. Not the fastest or strongest, the raccoon invariably wins thanks to his ingenuity and ability to keep cool under pressure. [Throughout the show, he has to rescue his friends from a refrigerator, a Yeti and even from an asteroid attack."
Everybody and Everything Has a Purpose
"A special subgenere in North Korean animation includes films that reveal the benefits of various crops," the journalist noted. "So, for example, in the 2000 cartoon 'Potato in the Fragrant Valley', the cheerful ranks of potato commandos arrive to reinforce rice and corn, easily smashing an army of insects with their chemical artillery. The cartoon ends showing an extravaganza of the various goods which the useful product provides. No less useful, it turns out, is soy." Similar animated series feature other foods and anthropomorphic objects as they work together to serve a common purpose.
Science, Education and Space Exploration
According to Olfert, the number of scientific and educational cartoons has increased dramatically in the last decade, with one popular genre featuring stories about the everyday lives of ordinary schoolchildren. "The cartoons teach children to take all their prescribed medicines on time, not to overfeed animals, and not to overwater the lawn, so that it grows normally. There is even a whole series of 15 episodes devoted to the rules of road safety."
Finally, perhaps the most ambitious modern-day educational cartoons show children as they study the cosmos, in accordance with Pyongyang's ambitions to become a space power. "Today's North Korean schoolchildren are expected to know not only how to identify an impending earthquake, but find answers to questions relating to the exploration of space, set for them by the country's leadership," the journalist concluded.