Invincible Invincible

An eye-opening report from the Stimson Center’s 38 North project provides evidence that American studios may have unknowingly used North Korean labor for high-profile productions. The Washington D.C.-based think tank, however, has concluded that the U.S. studios were almost certainly not involved in sending work to the heavily-sanctioned Asian country and that their work may have been subcontracted out by South Korean studios hired to produce the work.

The issue came to light after an independent researcher in the U.S. who regularly scans North Korea’s internet found a trove of production artwork from American tv shows like Prime Video’s Invincible and Max’s upcoming Iyanu: Child of Wonder. Production files from Japanese studios producing anime was also found on the same server.

Here a link to the 38 North report. A CNN story offers more details. Let’s dive into what we know so far.

What was found on North Korean servers: An undisclosed, but apparently significant, number of drawings and videos were found. It’s not clear if production files were also found. The Stimson Center has released some of the drawings to media, including the two on this page. One appears to a layout drawing from Iyanu and the other is a screenshot of a video of an animation production file with a timing chart from Invincible.

Wait, North Koreans do animation? Much of the country’s animation runs through its Pyongyang-based government-run studio SEK (also known as the April 26 Animation Studio). The current size of the studio is unknown, but during various times in the past it has been reported to employ between 900-1,600 workers. Further, European producers have often used SEK in years past – a history can be found HERE.

A character layout from Max's upcoming series <em>Iyanu: Child of Wonder.</em>
A character layout from Max’s upcoming series Iyanu: Child of Wonder.

What’s the China connection? The documents include instructions in Chinese that have been translated into Korean. SEK has a Chinese satellite office, which could be a possible explanation. But both Invincible and Iyanu appear to be made by South Korean studios, and there is yet no explanation for why there are Chinese instructions on artwork from Korean studios.

Could Warner Bros. and Amazon be sanctioned by the U.S. government? Currently there is zero evidence that these U.S. companies were aware of North Korean involvement. However, the U.S. government has issued warnings about doing due-diligence and specifically cited animation as an area of caution (download PDF of U.S. government advisory). The U.S. government takes sanction violations seriously; two years ago, the U.S. sanctioned seven individuals and companies who were found to be working with SEK animation studio.

What are the animation companies involved saying? Skybound Entertainment, the producer of Amazon’s Invincible, says that it is investigating how this could have happened. The company’s spokesperson Hannah Cosgrove told CNN:

Our contracts specifically prohibit outsourcing to any third-party without our express prior written consent, and no such consent has been sought nor granted. [The company is] taking this matter very seriously [and has] started an investigation to get to the bottom of this with third party counsel.

An animation production file from <em>Invincible</em> that somehow ended up on North Korean servers.
An animation production file from Invincible that somehow ended up on North Korean servers.

The companies behind Iyanu – Warner Bros. Discovery, YouNeek Studios, and Lion Forge Entertainment – all declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment. But the CNN piece does add some additional details about Lion Forge’s troubles with South Korean studios:

A source familiar with the matter told CNN that Lion Forge Entertainment contracted with a South Korea-based animation studio for the work. But late last year, the source said, Lion Forge discovered that the South Korean studio had further outsourced animation work for Iyanu to other South Korean companies without authorization. Lion Forge severed ties with the South Korean animation studio in January, the source said. The South Korean studio told Lion Forge that it had outsourced the work only to South Korean companies, not any entity in North Korea, the source added.