October 19, 2010:
North Korean comics, a key element of state control, are under attack by reality, and losing badly. North Korea is having lots of problems with its propaganda efforts. While few North Koreans (usually only trusted government officials) have free access to the Internet, and a few more (along the Chinese border) can use Chinese cell phones to communicate with the outside world, many more have access to CD players that can display (mostly pirated) foreign movies on their TV sets. These CDs are smuggled in from China, and many of them contain movies and TV shows from South Korea. This stuff is immensely popular in North Korea, where the standard TV and radio fare is relentless, and poorly executed, propaganda.
But South Korean comics are getting in as well, some of them on CDs, in scanned format. The South Korea comics, called manhwa, are heavily influenced by the Japanese version, called manga. The South Korean manhwa originally came out of China, more than Japan (which occupied Korea from 1905-45, and created an intense hatred of all things Japanese in Korea). But in the last few decades, the explosive growth, and influence, of manga, has influenced South Korean manhwa, and the less creative North Korean comixs.
The Chinese graphic novels are also called manhwa, and it is basically the same word used by the Japanese (manga). Most Japanese and Koreans recognize the Chinese ideograph for manhwa has meaning manga/manhwa. China had its own long tradition of illustrated literature, which then, like manga, adopted many ideas from Western comics to create a unique East Asian form. While many Americans have heard of, and seen, manga, they are unfamiliar with the widespread use of this media in Korea and China.
Both are an adaption of the first comics, developed in the United States over a century ago. The manga and manhwa are basically comic books or, is U.S. parlance, "graphic novels." Although Japan and South Korea are two of the most literate nations in the world, adults, as well as children, are major consumers of manga and manhwa. The Manga has been around for nearly a century, while the manhwa didn't really get big in Korea until the 1920s, using Chinese manhwa has a model.
Manhwa/manga are produced on all sorts of subjects, from business, professional and technical, to (for the most part) fiction. The major manga creators (artists and writers) are big celebrities in Japan and South Korea (and, increasingly, in the United States and elsewhere in the world.)
Naturally, the North Koreans sought to turn manhwa into something that "served the state." North Korea gave it a different name (gruimchaek) and it was all produced by the propaganda department. The stuff was churned out for all age categories, and the basic theme was that North Korea was great and the rest of the world sucked. But now that more North Koreans are seeing South Korean manhwa, the gruimchaek, and its propaganda message has been discredited. Some North Koreans have had access to Chinese and Japanese manga, but without translations of the text, they could only puzzle over the artwork, which seemed to imply the world was much different than their own, obviously shabbier, gruimchaek implied. But now the South Korean manhwa coming in has dispelled all doubt.