If you didn’t know it already, North Korea produces its own animation and cartoons for children. For those vaguely with that fact, you will be aware such cartoons are heavily politicized and often labelled as “propaganda”. That of course doesn’t take a genius to work out. However, more thought provoking is exploring what these cartoons truly mean and symbolize in representation to their audience. Given this, we’re going to take a deep look into one of North Korea’s most famously known animations, that is: The Squirrel and the Hedgehog, a show which ran on North Korean TV for nearly 40 years and is available for foreigners to purchase in gift shops. This program, although more than obviously built around military themes and a dig at the United States, is in fact a elaborate symbolism of the DPRK’s geopolitical world with deep invested meanings which few might realize on the surface. Let’s find out more!
The Squirrel and the Hedgehog in a nutshell is the ongoing story about how a group of young and patriotic squirrels strive to defend their country, termed “Flower Hill” from a number of hostile military invaders. Their main opponents are the Wolves and the Weasels, who exercise a slave like dominion over a group of mice. Digging into this, its easy to guess the symbolism of the Wolves even to the point it need not be mentioned here. So let’s start with Squirrels and Flower Hill. What might we see a squirrel as? First of all in the general public view Squirrels are a benign, non-predatory creature capable of living around human habitation without being seen as a nuisance. We typically associate squirrels with industriousness and commitment as they gather resources and tend to nests. In this light, for squirrels to serve as the representation of North Korea in this cartoon is designed to illustrate a country led by loyalty, good intentions and purity. Why so? The DPRK’s politics constantly strives to depict itself as a pure country which earnestly serves the interests of Koreans, of which its citizens are obligated to be loyal to. With the traditions of Neo-Confucianism lingering in the background, the state places constant emphasis on virtue and the idea of not being “defiled” by the outside world. The selection of a squirrel reflects such an opt for “Innocence”. In turn, they are also accompanied by a series of other creatures also depicted in an “innocent” light, including ducks.
So what is “Flower Hill?” this is an allegorical depiction of Korea itself with flowers serving as a symbolism for the country with such representing the qualities of perseverance and loyalty to the nation. With roots all the way back to ancient Korea, the application of flowers as a national symbolism is prominent in both North and South Korea, with such having served as a symbol of resistance to Japanese rule from 1910-1945. One may note in both countries the prominent depiction of flowers in official posters, seals, artwork and other government sponsored material designed to represent Korea and its culture. Thus, when the home of the squirrels is called “flower hill” it is not an innocent childlike name, but a clear representation of the motherland.
With the squirrels and flower hill on one side, they stand against the Weasels who collaborate with the (American) wolves. This is a clear nod to the contemporary Japanese, an ally of the United States. The symbolism of a weasel is not hard to recognize; it holds strong negative connotations. We imagine a weasel in the metaphorical sense to not only be potential vermin, but something sly, sneaky, irredeemable and snitchy. We do not attach much worth or value to such a creature. That is of course how North Koreans see Japan. Whilst there is the legacy of colonialism, they see it as a sinister, dis-trustworthy and of course unpure country with only malign intentions for Korea as a hole. Thus within the Squirrel and the Hedgehog cartoon itself, the enormous contrast in the weasels characteristics to that of the Squirrels and their allies in the cartoon speaks volumes.
Finally what about the mice? The mice are an interpretation of South Korea. When we think of mice, we think of lowly creatures that are associated with desperation, weakness and of course owing to their size: powerlessness. It is not surprising on this note that in the cartoon the mice exist purely as underhand servants of the Weasels and the Wolves, they are notably deprived of their own agency and also depicted in sexually permissive ways. For example, one scene on a Squirrel and Hedgehog episode depicts female mice as waitresses in a luxury restaurant where the Weasels are dining in luxury. The waitresses are dressed in promiscuous pink skirts. What does this symbolize?
Again it stems back to the notion of “purity” in North Korea society. The DPRK is in its own conception a sovereign and independent country which acts as a guardian to the true interests of Koreans, keeping them safe from the ideological pollution of the outside world. South Korea on the other hand, is conceived as an exploited country which is completely subservient to the interests of the United States and poisoned by capitalism. This takes a sexual character as the DPRK has sought to utilize the symbolism of chaste and virtuous women to idealize the notion of not being dominated by the sexually provocative “masculine” character of colonialists, in deliberate contrast to the “unchaste” rendering of South Korea which is unduly exploited by such, a rendition which emerged from the history of some American soldiers soliciting certain “services” from locals and at large viewing Asian women through such entitlement. Thus this winds up in a children’s cartoon as powerless, sexually exploited… mice at the hands of the antagonists.
This simple frame alone explicitly reveals the contrast between the virtuous and pure depiction of North Korea with the exploited and unchaste rendering of the South.
Thus, the Squirrel and the Hedgehog is not just a cartoon which renders a “good vs. evil” dynamic in the question of Squirrels and Wolves or North Korea and the United States, but it is a subtle and elaborate political allegory and commentary of the world through the eyes of the DPRK. It’s the story of industrious, loyal, innocent and devoted young patriots who seek to deliver servitude to their land against a treacherous series of adversaries.