Some Amazon and Max cartoons may have been partially animated in North Korea

The country allegedly got around US sanctions by operating front companies in China.


North Korean animators may have helped create popular cartoons for Amazon Prime Video, Max and other streaming services. Researchers from the Washington-based 38 North project allegedly discovered a misconfigured cloud server on a North Korean IP address that contained thousands of animation files, as reported by Wired. US sanctions prohibit commercial activity with North Korean entities, due to human rights abuses and the advancement of its nuclear weapons program.

The server included animation cells, videos and notes discussing the work, in addition to requested changes. Some images appear to be from the popular Prime Video superhero show Invincible and others from an upcoming Max children’s anime called Iyanu: Child of Wonder. The data, which was analyzed in part by the Google-owned security firm Mandiant, provides a glimpse into how North Korea likely skirts sanctions.

The researchers were able to analyze incoming connections to the server and noted access from three Chinese cities, suggesting front companies of some kind. “All three cities are known to have many North Korean–operated businesses and are main centers for North Korea’s IT workers who live overseas,” the report indicates.

Michael Barnhart, who works at Mandiant, said there was nothing in the research to indicate that Max, Amazon or any subsidiaries knew that the work was being handled by North Korean animators. It was likely subcontracted without their knowledge, as reported by Reuters. Barnhart has “high confidence” that the contracts were with Chinese companies who outsourced to animators who work on North Korea’s behalf.

In 2022, the FBI and the US Treasury issued an advisory to warn businesses about the risks of inadvertently hiring North Korean tech workers through this kind of outsourcing. A spokesperson for the US Treasury told Reuters that it has no comment on this particular allegation, but noted that North Korea's efforts to generate revenue for its weapons programs through abuses of the subcontracting system was an ongoing concern.

Amazon has directed inquiries to Skybound, the company behind Invincible. It says it has no knowledge of any North Korean entities working on its animation projects but has initiated an internal review to verify and rectify lingering issues. "We have also notified the proper authorities and are cooperating with all appropriate bodies," the Skybound’s head of corporate communications Hannah Cosgrove said. Max has not responded to requests for comment.