AN academic believes he has found a way to understanding the communist state of North Korea: by reading its comic books.
Heinz Insu Fenkl, a literature professor at the State University of New York who describes himself as an American-Korean, produces English translations of the hard-to-find graphic novels, which are called "gruim-chaek" in North Korea.
Fenkl sources the books, which are a sort of Korean marxist cross between Japanese manga or British commando comics, at shops in China and from colleagues who travel to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
He aims to put together a web archive of all the comics he has translated.
"Of the 'gruim-chaek' I've located, those published this decade tend to be spy thrillers probably aimed at young boys and teenagers," the literature expert said.
"The cartoonists establish the storylines strictly as moralistic good-versus-evil tales. And almost all the books are printed in black and white on poor-quality paper.
"I've also seen some covers of more recent comics that seem to be re-establishing a mythic narrative by referring back to old folktales."
The plots usually pin blame on loud-mouthed Americans and opportunist Japanese for cursing their promised land with vice.
Most books are leaked to China through the border town of Dandong – a hub of smuggling in North Korean goods. Others end up in a shop in Tokyo that specialises in North Korean memorabilia. A few even turn up in university libraries in the US.
The books are designed to instil the leader of North Korea Kim Il-sung's philosophy of juche – self-reliance of the state – said Nick Bonner, founder of Koryo Tours, an English-language tour company in Beijing that takes visitors to North Korea.
He added: "They're much like the themes I read when I was a kid, on the British Army fighting the 'Nazis and Japs'.
"But (in North Korea] their themes are either historic or based on the Anti-Japanese Guerrilla War, or the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War (the North Korean name for the Korean War in 1950-53]."
In A Blizzard in the Jungle, published in 2001, a group of Americans and North Koreans travelling on an airplane crash in an unnamed African country. The Americans selfishly split ways with their North Korean colleagues, only to be devoured by crocodiles.