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A recent cloud server breach indicates that some of the top animation shows are partially produced in North Korea.

We’re gonna make (you draw) a movie, kid

Production companies such as Amazon, HBO Max, and the BBC may be using North Korean labor to produce a number of popular shows, according to the discovery of in-progress animation work on an unsecured cloud server in 2023. The lead author of blog NK Internet, Nick Roy, discovered the server’s existence, although analysis from 38 North, a publication from think tank The Stimson Center covering events and policy in the North Korean region, suggests that the server is no longer in use.

There are also questions about the nature of the files found during analysis. While many files were explicitly work in progress, including direct instructions written in Chinese and translated to Korean, other files, pertaining to the BBC children’s show Octonauts, were complete, making it unclear as to whether they were simply files used as reference for other projects or actively worked on by the outfit.

The 38 North report sheds little light on the contracted operation, only that it was based in Pyongyang. The report guesses that it’s April 26 Animation Studio, or SEK Studio, ‘North Korea’s premier animation house’, but also an outfit put under US sanctions in 2016, with other companies found to be collaborating with it given similar punishments relating to ‘corruption and human rights abuse’ as late as 2022.

This stuff is quite frightening, honestly. It’s easy, as a consumer, to put it out of mind under, essentially, the belief that there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism. There’s plenty of truth in that: it’s a basic guarantee that you or I have intentionally or otherwise put money into the coffers of some unethical operation or other in the pursuit of happiness, or just life itself, especially when companies like Amazon are working on running every aspect of it. True, you can be a tedious internet nihilist and say ‘get real dude, it’s a cartoon’, but they don’t appear out of thin air, do they? Why don’t you draw tens of thousands of pictures under duress and see if your arm hurts? The other big question that remains unresolved is: just how hard did people in the trenches work on, say, Invincible season 2? Discovering the answer might be beyond our cloud storage remit, but we’d still be very interested to find out.

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