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The comic books that brainwash North Koreans

Mighty Wing, Pyongyang's equivalent of Mickey Mouse, is a honeybee that confronts a swarm of capitalist wasps.

One of North Korea’s most famous comic books aimed at children is "The Great General Mighty Wing," an epic narrative published by a state-run press in 1994.

Mighty Wing the honeybee confronts a horde of imperialist wasps — cunningly dressed like Japanese soldiers from World War II — trying to invade his land. After the wasps lay dead, he quickly rallies his enthusiastic colony into a workers’ collective.

By working together, they build an extensive irrigation canal that flows abundantly to all the bees — not just the powerful wasps.

Concerned about a drought and famine that would eventually kill about 600,000 people, North Korea at the time was looking for ways purvey water to its people. The regime was constructing a large irrigation canal at the same time Mighty Wing became a sensation.

"Mighty Wing, in some ways, was an iconic image,” Fenkl said. “It was a brilliant move to use bees, or beol, as a symbol to resonate with the historical irrigation project, the Yeoldu 3,000 Ri Beol.”

“The books were in color, unlike most comics,” he added, pointing out the importance the regime might have placed on this cartoon.

Mighty Wing gained fame in North Korea at the same level of Mickey Mouse in the West, thanks to the national fears the artists touched on. Kim Il-sung had died that same year — and many North Koreans were secretly uncertain about what would come next.

In his research, Fenkl recently noticed one anomaly: the "gruim-chaek" that reaches the international black market usually differs from those intended for a North Korean audience.

It appears that the editors “step in,” he said, imputing the black-market comics with less ideological content. This could mean they are purposely sending the comics across the sealed Chinese border to expand their readership.

“I will have to look into it before I come to any conclusions. 'The Crystal Key,’ for example, is pretty indistinguishable from a non-ideological comic book,” he reflected, referring to another famous book published in 1992. “[With the ideological content taken out] it would be an internationally accessible graphic novel about pirates and a virtuous family protecting their community.”