International Animation Industry :
North Korea is a hidden outsourcing Mecca
for the international animation industry, producing such
well-known movies as The Lion King.
North Korea’s state-owned SEK Studio,
employing as many as 500 North Korean animators out of
its staff of 1,500, most North Korean animators are
highly educated, including graduates from the
prestigious Pyongyang College of Arts. North Korea’s
cartoon industry has become quite sophisticated as a
result of its cooperation with France and Italy in their
animation projects since 1983. North Korea’s animation
skills now rank among the world’s best,
North Korea is already famous as a production location for high quality cartoons and animation. Staff of the American Walt Disney Corporation described the country as one of the most talented centers of animation in the world. The specialized state corporation SEK Studio has more than 1500 employees, and works for several European producers of children films. New companies are being founded as well, and I visited Tin Ming Alan CG Studio. This firm was set up in early 2006, and is located in a new office building in the outskirts of Pyongyang. Its main focus is in Computer Graphics and in 2D and 3D animation it uses the latest hardware and software, including Maja. Some of the staff of Tin Ming Alan speak Chinese and the company has a marketing office in China. They are hired by Chinese advertisement companies to make the animation for TV-commercials. It also works on animation to be included in computer games. Several employees of this young company come from other animation studios and have more than ten years of experience in this field.
The North Korean IT sector seems to be dynamic, where new firms are being established, and where business units of larger organizations are being spun-off into new ventures. I visited the Gwang Myong IT Center, which is a spin-off from Korea Computer Center. It is specialized in network software and security, and it produces anti-virus, data encryption, data recovery, and fingerprint software. This firmis internationally active as well; it has an office in China and among its clients are financial institutions in Japan.
Issues of country selection
The local tariffs are lower than in India or China, thus giving western firms the option of considerable cost reductions. The commitment of North Korean IT-firms is also high, and the country is therefore also an offshore option for especially smaller or medium sized western software companies. Outsourcing work to North Korea could also be used to foster innovation (e.g. developing better products or new applications). This country can be used for research as well (from Linux to parallel processing). Based from my interaction with Korean managers and software engineers, I do not believe that the cultural differences are larger than with China or India. My communication with them, both formal and informal, was pleasant. Communicating with North Koreans is clearly less difficult than with Japanese.
The North Korean companies have experiences with a wide range of development platforms. They work with Assembler, Cobol, C, Visual Studio .Net, Visual C/C++, Visual Basic, Java, JBuilder, Powerbuilder, Delphi, Flash, XML, Ajax, PHP, Perl, Oracle, SQL Server, MySQL, etc. They can do development work for administrative applications, but also technical software, such as embedded software or PLC’s. North Korea is very advanced in areas such as animation and games, and I have seen a range of titles, including table tennis, chess, golf, or beach volley. The design of many of their applications was modern and according to the western taste.
Over the recent years, North Korea is opening up for foreign business. This process makes offshore sourcing easier, and even investing in an own software subsidiary or joint venture can be considered. This does not mean that North Korea is potential software destination for every user of offshore services. The country is a subject of international political tensions. In addition, a number of circumstances require specific attention, such as the command of the English Language. As is the case with China, the North Korean IT staff are able to read english bu thtey do not speak it very well. Another issue is the relative isolation of the country, and in order to arrange an invitation, a visa is required. The limited number of direct flights is another disadvantage; one can only travel directly from Beijing or Moscow. If projects will require a lot of communication or knowledge transfer, it might be recommended to do some parts of the work in China, by the Chinese branches of the North Korean companies. Executing a small pilot project is the best way to investigate the opportunities in more detail.
North Korea has a large number of skilled IT professionals, and it has a high level of IT expertise in various areas. The country is evolving into a nearshore software destination for a growing number of clients from Japan, China and South Korea. An interesting example of their success is the work they are doing for South Korean giant Samsung, in the field of embedded software for mobile phones.
North Korean IT-companies are now also targeting the European market, and the low tariffs and the available skills are major advantages. Smaller and medium sized software companies can consider this country as a potential offshore destination, and should research the opportunities for collaboration or investment in more detail. Taking part in a study tour, as I have done, is an excellent way to get more insight in the actual business opportunities of a country - not only in the case of North Korea but for all nearshore and farshore destinations.