Japanese snap up manga cartoons of N Korean leader

AFP , TOKYO

Fri, Sep 19, 2003 - Page 5

A newly published comic book depicting the bizarre life of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-il has proved a runaway success with Japanese devotees of manga cartoons.

Tens of thousands of copies have been snapped up by Japanese eager to learn more about the reclusive dictator following North Korea's drive to develop nuclear weapons and Pyongyang's confession to kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

"We have already sold around 250,000 copies since the book went on sale on Aug. 4," Yoshiaki Takahashi, a spokesman for the Asukashina manga publishing house.

"At first it was mostly 30-to-40-year-olds who bought the manga but now we're seeing college students and high-school pupils are reading it too," he said.

Manga, literally "random sketches," is the term for the genre of narrative comic strips, often series, read by millions of Japanese. Thousands of new titles on themes ranging from samurai, golf, yakuza gangsters, fantasy superheroes, sex to social satire are published each year.

Titled "Introduction to Kim Jong-il: the truth about the honorable North Korean shogun," the book is the Japanese version of a manga first published five years ago in South Korea by Lee U-jong, a Japanese-born Korean, who now teaches manga animation in South Korea.

The book was pulled from the shelves in South Korea shortly after the election of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung because it ran counter to his sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea, according to the translator of the Japanese edition, Lee Young-hwa.

It has yet to reappear there.

And with good reason. The North Korean dictator is portrayed in its 340-odd pages as a violent, bloodthirsty despot who commits numerous murders and has a weakness for women and the high-life.

But the cartoon book also relates Kim's little-known childhood and relationship with his father, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and its ruler until 1994.

Intended to be educational, the book is as easy to read as any other manga, while also striving to serve as a work of reference, incorporating actual press cuttings and photographs.

The manga should enable Japanese to "define more clearly Kim Jong-il's personality so that Japan can work out the policy it should adopt" for dealing with North Korea, said Lee Young-hwa.

The book has appeared at a time when relations between the two countries have deteriorated into acrimony over the kidnapping of Japanese nationals during the Cold War years and fears over North Korea's nuclear weapons.