An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Story Of South Korea Told Through One Cartoonist


In South Korea, Huh Youngman is a celebrity who gets recognized on the street. He's not a politician or a pop star. He's a cartoonist who's shaped and chronicled Korean culture for nearly half a century. A major art gallery in Seoul just finished a career retrospective of his work. NPR's Ari Shapiro met him on the last day of the exhibition.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: I first heard of Huh Youngman from Sam Kass. He was White House chef to the Obamas and ran the first lady's nutrition programs.

SAM KASS: So I went to Korea as part of the culinary diplomacy program that we started with the State Department.

SHAPIRO: Culinary diplomacy - building connections through food. Diplomats arranged a fancy lunch at a high-end restaurant for Kass to meet this renowned cartoonist. It was formal, elegant, and Huh Youngman was aghast. That's not how real Korean people eat, he said.

KASS: He was just like, this cannot stand. And so about halfway through the meal he said to me what are you doing tonight? And I had a lot of things lined up, but I said, you know, I can be free. He said, I want to take you to a real great meal.

SHAPIRO: So the cartoonist called a dive restaurant that specializes in traditional Korean cured crab.

KASS: It was by far the best thing I ate.

SHAPIRO: This cartoonist has done more for Korean food culture than many of the country's leading chefs. Huh Youngman made comic books about food. Those books became a TV show and a national obsession.

KASS: And he has told the story of Korea through food in beautiful and compelling ways that are smart and funny and ask, you know, probing questions.

SHAPIRO: But food's not the cartoonist's only focus. Huh Youngman has done the same thing for baseball and professional gamblers and Japan's occupation of Korea 100 years ago. These comics have shaped generations of Koreans. David Lee is an intern at the Seoul Arts Center, and he gives us a tour of this Huh Youngman career retrospective.

DAVID LEE: When I first came to this exhibition with my mom and dad, they were walking around here and they would exclaim he made that too or, like, that story was based off of this.

SHAPIRO: It's the first time the gallery has ever done a show about a cartoonist. A long line of people snakes through the gift shop here. At the front of the line, Huh Youngman is signing autographs. He's 69, but looks about 20 years younger, wiry with round glasses and a sharp black cap. He's just finished a two-hour lecture, and when he's done with another two hours of autographs, he sits down in a back office to explain why he puts so much research into each comic book.

HUH YOUNGMAN: (Through interpreter) If it's a comic about swordfights, for example, then you have to draw the sword as if it's really going to slice you. If comics just give an endless list of information, readers will get exhausted.

SHAPIRO: I ask him to show us what he's got in the works, and he says let me reach into my rice pot. He roots around in his satchel and pulls out a notebook.

Each page of this diary has an image and it's you at a desk, you standing on the street, you falling down. And this is your cartoon diary that you've been keeping.

He says nobody asked him to do this, and he may never publish it, but it's just one more creative outlet. I ask why he thinks the U.S. has never had such a universally popular cartoonist.

YOUNGMAN: (Through interpreter) The U.S. has such a big, diverse population. It's very difficult for a cartoonist to fit everybody's taste. Korea - it's a little different.

SHAPIRO: Besides, by Huh Youngman's account, he has covered 215 different themes in comics over the course of his career. And that's enough for everyone to find something they can relate to. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.