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Cartoons Show North Korea's Lighter Side

North Korea's economy is among the world's weakest and most isolated. The Stalinist government is currently engaged in a tense international standoff over its nuclear weapons programs and faces tough sanctions that limit foreign trade. But despite its poor reputation, the country is still working hard to attract foreign investors and re-energize local industries.

The latest North Korean export, Billy the Cat, an animated feline with a taste for mischief and rock and roll.

The popular show is produced in France but most of the artwork is drawn in North Korea.

The reclusive communist state, better known for its controversial nuclear weapons program, is also developing a global reputation for low cost animation.

Since the mid-1980's, the state-owned SEK Studio has produced hundreds of cartoons for local and foreign audiences.

The studio now has over 1,500 employees and contracts with French, Italian and Spanish firms.

Seoul-based animator Han dong Il has worked with SEK and says the studio's artists are technically first-rate.

But he says the major obstacle to expansion is encouraging North Koreans to develop modern storylines that could appeal to a broader audience.

Mr. Han says local artists find generating new characters difficult because they lack exposure to different cultures and foreign ideas.

But this month marks a milestone in North Korea's animation industry. For the first time, North and South Korea have worked together to produce an animated feature film.

"Empress Chung" was released in mid-August, first in South Korea and then a week later in Pyongyang and around the world.

The movie is based on a well-known Korean folk tale about a young woman who overcomes adversity, including a gigantic sea monster, to help restore her father's eyesight.

Filmmaker Nelson Shin says he picked the North Korean studio after meeting representatives at a trade show in Singapore.

"This is a genuine Korean folk tale, why not, you know? So we make it together. We are just trying to make good art," he said.

And despite North Korea's reputation for hard-line politics, Mr. Shin says its artists had no problem drawing cute cartoon characters.