By Lee Minji
SEOUL, May 30 (Yonhap) -- A blue penguin in tangerine-colored aviator goggles and a banana-yellow helmet grabs attention at a bustling wholesale toy market in central Seoul. Storefronts are plastered with products emblazoned with the flightless bird, ranging from water bottles to miniature furniture.
Sim Kwang-soo's store is no exception. Nestled at one alley of the Dongdaemun toy market, his store is a treasure trove for children and parents infatuated with "Pororo the Little Penguin."
"Kids hail him as 'Potongryeong,'" or President Pororo, said the veteran toy seller of 20 years. "No other South Korean cartoon character has been so popular. Many customers returned home empty-handed ahead of Children's Day because we ran out of stock."
Since his debut in 2003, Pororo has reigned as an unrivaled favorite among Korean toddlers and pre-schoolers. The popular penguin was recently the subject of a flurry of media coverage following reports that animators from both South and North Korea crafted his adorable image. Now, Pororo's creator says, the blue penguin is ready to swim beyond Korea's shores to achieve a feat never accomplished by a homegrown character: to become an icon for children across the globe.
In 2010, the South Korean animation industry's market size reached 488 billion won (US$444 million), a fraction of the global animation industry estimated at $14.5 billion.
Although it is home to many skilled, productive animators, South Korea's animation industry has long been deemed a barren land for creativity. Fighting against such a notion, local animators like Iconix Entertainment Co. have thrown down the gauntlet to compete with global stars such as Crayon Shin-chan and the Teletubbies.
"Pororo was born to become a universal character," said Choi Jong-il, CEO of Iconix Entertainment, in an interview. "From the very beginning, his name, color and species was chosen for international appeal."
Due to the local market's limited size, Choi said his team thought that going global was a top priority for success when he and his team brainstormed for the character. They decided to choose an animal to avoid tying him to any specific culture.
Pororo's name, which means "to walk nimbly in short steps" in Korean, was selected from a list of hundreds of candidates for its easy pronunciation.
"We tried to eliminate even the smallest sign of a particular ethnicity and were strict to stay away from cultural taboos," Choi said. "It was our core strategy for survival."
Creating a character was one thing, but marketing it was another. According to Choi, overseas buyers weren't convinced South Korea, deemed a subcontractor for global animation powerhouses, could create original work.
Choi decided to tap foreign animation festivals, a decision that proved smart. Pororo won accolades at France's Annecy International Animation Film Festival and Italy's Cartoons on the Bay and was nominated for a handful of global animation prizes.
Helped by his successful global debut, Pororo has so far been exported to around 110 countries, from Brazil to Norway. He now rakes in around 12 billion won annually from licensing. In France, viewer ratings exceeded 50 percent after his show began airing on the country's largest public TV channel. Pororo and his pack of playmates have also appeared on the Arabic television network Al Jazeera.
Choi said his goal is to transform Iconix Entertainment into a global animation studio.
"Currently, only 10 percent of our revenue comes from abroad but we believe it's possible to reverse this pattern," he said.
Market watchers, however, say success, especially in non-Asian countries, is no easy job.
"Exporting animation is different from exporting cars or mobile phones," said Park Jung-soo, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics & Trade (KIET). "The message and the sentiment have to connect with the culture."
"The seeds that Hollywood movies and Western culture have planted around the world are in full bloom. Compared to that, Korea's culture is still beginning to expand. People don't know much about the culture, nevertheless its cartoons," said Park.
Choi acknowledges the challenges, which is why he's trained his eye on Asia.
"Going global is important. But ahead of that, I think success in Asia, especially in China and Japan, is critical," he said.
In a bid to boost the little bird's popularity in the region's largest economy, Iconix Entertainment set up its first overseas branch in China earlier this year. Its operation there, however, has largely been limited to market research due to China's efforts to foster its own animation industry.
"Pororo has quite a substantial audience in China, but it hasn't developed into lucrative opportunities yet," said Choi, "We hope to start a licensing business there. China will be an essential cornerstone for overseas expansion."
Choi also aims to open the company's second overseas unit in Japan, a world-renowned animation stronghold.
"People say it will be tough, but I'm confident," said the CEO, "Japanese animation mostly targets older age groups. They usually focus on entertainment whereas Pororo puts emphasis on education as well. There's a niche market out there."
According to Choi, Pororo's academic side gives him a competitive edge, which is why the executive is careful about licensing out the character.
"We've received countless proposals on using Pororo for marketing. But we turned down those that could have a negative influence on children," said Choi, adding that he refused to use Pororo to market toy guns or junk food.
"Pororo has conveyed an educational message to children around the world and they loved it," Choi said, "Children's sentiments go beyond borders."
Park of the KIET said Pororo's popularity, which has grown over the years, is likely to become the character's driving force for global growth.
"In 2003, children's love for Pororo was lukewarm. But the children who grew up with Pororo are fanatical about him," Park said. "The flow is likely to continue. That's how cultural content develops."
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