Pororo the Little Penguin: South Korea’s second president?
Recently revealed to be the most searched term on Google Korea for the first half of 2013, he is one of South Korea’s largest cultural exports of the past few years. With his distinctive eyewear, round face and larger-than-life personality, he has invaded the screens of homes all over the world. No, it’s not PSY. I’m talking about Pororo.
First broadcast in 2003, ‘Porong Porong Pororo’ (or, to call it by its official English-language title, ‘Pororo the Little Penguin’) has grown to become the most popular pre-school TV show in Korea and has been sold in over 120 countries. After 10 years, nearly 150 episodes and a made-for-TV movie, the first Pororo theatrical film release ‘Pororo: The Racing Adventure 3D’ came out at the beginning of this year and did extremely well at the Korean box office as well as being shown on 90% of cinema screens in China, no small feat in itself.
His extreme popularity among the children of Korea has earned him the nickname President Po (뽀통령) and none carry more power among the under 5s than Pororo and his cast of animal friends. Alongside book and musical adaptations of the original TV series, countless lines of Pororo merchandise have been sold around the world. From chopsticks to bags to sticking plasters, you name it and Pororo’s face is on it. When 3 million special edition Pororo stamps were released in 2011, they sold out in just 10 days selling more than Olympic figure skater Yuna Kim.
There is a themed land at Everland, Korea’s largest theme park, and six themed playgrounds in South Korea including one at the famous Lotte World and another recently announced one in Orange County, California (an area with a large Korean-American population).
But the penguin’s experience of politics and diplomacy go further than just his presidential nickname. He has become a kind of symbol of cooperation between both Koreas as 18 of the show’s over 100 episodes where produced in North Korea.
During the Sunshine Policy years of the early 2000s when the two countries signed a peace pact and pledged to work on more business adventures, the production company Iconix made the decision to jointly produce a large amount of the first two seasons of the show with a group of animators in the North. However as tensions grew again in 2005, they chose to pull out of North Korea and produce solely in the ROK. The involvement from the North was initially kept quiet but when the public finally did discover Pororo’s inter-Korean reaction the reaction was very mixed. Many congratulated the producers for creating an inter-Korean show while others accused them of collaborating with the Northern regime.
Pororo’s unusual roots also led to concerns in 2011 that the penguin would no longer be welcomed in the US as all products produced by North Korea or using the country’s technologies were banned in a new set of sanctions against the country. Luckily for the producers the TV show was classed as ‘information’ and so was exempt from the ban.
The reasons for Pororo’s huge success are many. In recent years, the country’s animation sector has been animating many of the world’s most famous cartoons including many American shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy. As a result there are a large number of highly skilled animators in Korea which meant the production companies behind the show could harness this to create a very high quality product which could easily compete with other international competitors.
One of the creators of the show, Choi Jong-il closely studied hit western preschool shows like Teletubbies while developing the concept, looking at everything from storylines to characters to the soundtrack. In an interview with Yonhap News, Chief of OCON Entertainment, one of the production companies behind the show, also pointed to the fact that the show was created by parents with children in the target age range who ‘had a common desire to make a good show so we can show it to our children although we were doing a business, of course’.
On top of all of this, the main reason for the show’s success has to be its universal themes and positive messages which are relevant to children and parents throughout the world. Pororo and his friends Crong the dinosaur, Poby the polar bear, Loopy the beaver, Eddy the fox and Petty the penguin are always going on adventures and getting in scrapes while learning about the importance of friendship, sharing and working together.
Outside of its core young audience, Pororo seems to have also gained a following with adult Korean language learners, including girl group f(x)’s non-Korean members Amber and Victoria. Three series of the show in Korean, English and most recently Chinese available through the official Pororo YouTube channel have made it easily accessable to learners throughout the world. From personal experience, Pororo offers a great resource for beginner to intermediate Korean learners for getting to grips with the grammar and speech levels as well as being highly entertaining!
With 10 years under his belt and with plans for his second feature film already in the works, President Po shows no signs of slowing down and could well remain popular for a long time to come.