Growing up in the South Pole, Pengsoo was to his penguin peers what Rudolph was to Santa’s reindeers: an outcast shunned for being different. Bullies latched on to Pengsoo’s towering frame – at nearly 7ft, Pengsoo is almost twice the height of the average emperor penguin – and its large, unblinking eyes.
“The other penguins didn’t play with me because I was too big,” 10-year-old Pengsoo told producers at a studio in the Korea Educational Broadcasting System (EBS) headquarters in Seoul in April 2019. Sitting in a gray room, empty save a too-small chair positioned beside a childish self-portrait, Pengsoo stared at the producers as it spoke. Pengsoo had swum to South Korea from the Antarctic “not too long ago”, it said, in the hopes of becoming the next big sensation on YouTube, which was “getting very popular” in its homeland. But the bullying there had been too much.
By that point, Pengsoo had just one subscriber on its nascent YouTube channel, and by all appearances didn’t seem primed to succeed in South Korea. Aside from being large and conspicuous in an image-conscious society, Pengsoo isn’t afraid to talk brashly and arrogantly – unlike the human stars that populate South Korea’s entertainment industry, who are rigorously trained to present themselves as “clean-cut” and “genteel” in order to appeal to global audiences spanning all age groups.narratively embed
In the dim light of the studio, the EBS producers – who had handpicked Pengsoo as their new trainee, hoping to make the penguin into an internet star – asked Pengsoo the question that started it all: “Do you want to increase your fanbase?”
Pengsoo perked up.
“Yes,” it responded, giving a thumbs-up. “And I’m going to work very hard to do just that.”
Despite the insistence of producers and fans to the contrary, Pengsoo isn’t a real penguin but a fictional character manifested by a large, penguin-shaped suit. (In strict accordance with the narrative that Pengsoo is a real penguin who traveled to South Korea to become a broadcast trainee, a media relations manager at the network avoided the question of how Pengsoo, as a character and concept, was invented. “It would be great if [instead] you could ask us how we selected Pengsoo during our audition process,” she wrote.) Pengsoo expresses a mix of nontraditional identities: despite having a deep, scruffy voice that people often compare to that of a middle-aged man, Pengsoo is technically a child and is genderless.
A year and a half after that initial “interview”, Pengsoo has become a national sensation. More than 2 million subscribers follow Pengsoo’s antics on the Giant PengTV YouTube channel, and its image can be found everywhere in cosmopolitan Seoul: on buses, , on ice-cream wrappers, and rendered as social media emoji.
Episodes of its show air every Monday and Friday, with each uploaded to YouTube. Its videos – ranging from day-in-the-life vlogs to collaborations with other South Korean stars, human and otherwise – have amassed more than 272m views.
It’s a level of fame surprising even to Pengsoo’s producers at EBS, a PBS-type network that mostly produces educational programming. Yeum Moon-kyoung, one of the writers on Giant PengTV, writes in an email: “We never expected the show to become this successful.”
“At first, we set out to create content that elementary school viewers would find entertaining,” adds Gong Min-jeong, another writer on the show. That’s the audience that has followed the escapades of another famous South Korean penguin, Pororo, since the animated television series Pororo the Little Penguin first aired on EBS in 2003.
But Pengsoo and Pororo are vastly different. The bespectacled and helmet-wearing Pororo inhabits a fictional world, while Pengsoo navigates modern-day, real-life South Korea. “I came to EBS to beat out Pororo,” Pengsoo told producers during the first episode of Giant PengTV.
Yet the most surprising distinction between the penguins lies in who tunes in to their shows. Despite having been created for children, Pengsoo has gained an unexpectedly large following among South Korea’s 20- and 30-somethings, many of whom follow Pengsoo with a passion. On Instagram, a search for “Pengsoo” reveals multiple fan accounts and dozens of images of Pengsoo-related merchandise.
In South Korea, where the faces of K-pop celebrities are emblazoned on everything from billboards to socks, fandom culture isn’t new. But how did a fictional character become a cultural figure that beat BTS – the boy band that has taken the world by storm – in a 2019 South Korean “person of the year” survey?
In 2015, the term “Hell Joseon” – an allusion to Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392–1897), during which society was structured in a feudal, class-based system – began making rounds on the internet, buoyed by millennials jaded by high unemployment, tough working conditions and growing inequality. No matter how hard one worked, it didn’t seem to be enough; the youth unemployment rate was at an all-time high, job competition was stiff, and for those who were employed, long hours and competitive workplace environments made their days a “living hell”.
“Hell Joseon” was tweeted more than 5,000 times by social media users in May that year alone. The terms “destroyed nation”, “the hellish peninsula” and “doggish country” followed closely on its tail.
“I can’t speak for all millennials, but I think living in society these days has become much harder,” says Kim Chul-gyu, 39, who left his job at an IT company in 2016 to pursue his dream of becoming a voice actor. His attempt at balancing his work and his passion was draining, he says. Despite the stability of the job, he had become exhausted by what it demanded of him.
Four years later, there are still days that he worries about finding work. It isn’t easy getting a job, especially a job that one can hold for a long time, he says. Many millennials spend their money “pretty quickly” because there’s seemingly little use in saving when it’s incredibly difficult to buy a home; since 2017, average home prices in Seoul have soared by 50%, the fastest growth rate in the world. And when he was employed, workplace life was overwhelming, full of “wounds and stresses”.
But then Kim met Pengsoo.
After dinner one evening last April, Kim wanted to relax by watching some TV. On air was the first episode of Giant PengTV, in which Pengsoo visits an elementary school to promote its new YouTube channel. The penguin balances blatant self-promotion with healthy self-deprecation: it isn’t afraid to showcase its amateur beatboxing talent in front of a classroom of confused students, and it responds to their blunt questions with ease.
Pengsoo is large, loud and unapologetically irreverent. “Pengsoo’s speech and behavior are enjoyable to children, yes, but they’re also enjoyable to adults,” says Kim over Skype, breaking into a smile as he describes his favorite episodes. He talks about how he has considered Pengsoo “a real-life friend” ever since he watched the penguin’s cover of the song You’ve Got a Friend in Me; how he waited in line to meet Pengsoo in person last July and felt immense joy at being able “to give it a long hug”; and how he leaves enthusiastic comments on Pengsoo’s YouTube videos.
Kim loves how Pengsoo stands up for itself and is confident despite “looking weird” and being different. He also appreciates Pengsoo’s knack for wise words; in one of Kim’s favorite episodes, Pengsoo dishes out what is perhaps its best-known quote: “If I’m struggling, does it help if someone tells me to cheer up? No, right? Instead of saying ‘cheer up’ to those who are struggling, I like to say ‘I love you’ instead.”
The message is followed by one of the many Pengsoo-specific slang terms that have entered viewers’ lexicons: “Peng-love-you.”
“I wonder how things would’ve turned out if I’d known Pengsoo while I was still working in an office,” Kim tells me. “Maybe I would’ve coped better.”
The penguin’s unflinchingly honest take on professional life has attracted attention from working millennials hoping to find a vicarious break. Pengsoo, who is depicted in the show as a full-time trainee at EBS, is notorious for workplace antics. It calls its bosses by their first names, never misses the opportunity to get away from the office, and has frankly stated that “those who contact me during my day off will go to hell”. The penguin has since been unofficially coronated by netizens as “president of workers”.
Jieun Jeon, a 31-year-old office worker in Seoul, first discovered Pengsoo in September 2019. While scrolling through her Instagram feed, she kept encountering gifs and screenshots from an EBS program that pitted some of South Korea’s most famous fictional characters against one another in an Olympics-style tournament.
Fast-forward a year, and her Instagram profile is now inundated with pictures of the wide-eyed penguin.She carries around a Pengsoo water bottle and a phone swaddled in a Pengsoo case, and she recently bought a Pengsoo-themed notebook that she hasn’t written in because she “didn’t want to waste it”.
Like Kim, Jeon believes that Pengsoo’s appeal to millennials has less to do with its professional attitudes and more to do with its character, which has allowed South Koreans “to escape restrictive norms”.
In South Korea, age-based hierarchies play a significant role in social environments like schools and workplaces. Jeon believes that by pushing back against cultural expectations, Pengsoo has become a pioneer. “Regardless of the criticism it receives, Pengsoo continues to exit these hierarchies and forge a new path for itself,” she says.
Jeon pointed out that Pengsoo also challenges the boundaries of gender. She opened a December 2019 edition of Nylon magazine, in which Pengsoo – often misgendered as male, given its low, scruffy voice – is shown styling makeup, dresses and nail polish. The Giant PengTV producer Lee Seulyena said in a 2019 interview with Women News that with Pengsoo, she “wanted to break” the gender stereotypes she took for granted in the media growing up.
“If the previous generation’s mantra was ‘grit your teeth and bear it’, this generation’s mindset has definitely shifted toward the belief that tolerating the intolerable isn’t the right thing to do,” says Yeum, one of the writers. “I think Pengsoo does a refreshing job of highlighting that tension, and in turn viewers can get the vicarious satisfaction of watching it challenge that reality.”
Gong, her colleague, says: “I think watching Pengsoo consoles millennials and helps them believe that they can be their own person – and still be loved.”
The writers hope that Pengsoo will become popular globally. English captions were added to Pengsoo’s YouTube videos starting with season two, and the show’s producers have been talking about the penguin to publications across the world. A scroll of Pengsoo’s social media accounts reveals that it already has fans from countries including China, Russia, Indonesia and the US.
And it’s not just millennials. My 52-year-old mother watches Giant PengTV almost every evening, following its joys and sorrows as if it were a close friend. Her day can easily be made with an ice-cream that features Pengsoo’s face, or stickers she can collect with my sister and me.
“On the days I have a difficult time at work and still need to do the housework back home, I enjoy watching Pengsoo,” my mother tells me. “When Pengsoo is tired of something, it isn’t afraid to say so.”
Out of the more than 12,000 members on the first Pengsoo “fan cafe”, a Reddit-like site where fans gather, there are roughly as many members in their 40s and 50s as those in their 20s and 30s, according to the page’s founder.
Once considered an outcast, Pengsoo is now living in an apartment in the EBS headquarters, its chic abode fashioned with posters of itself and a refrigerator stacked with tuna cans. Its subscriber count continues to rise daily.
It seems that the hard work Pengsoo promised has paid off.
This story originally appeared on the digital storytelling platform Narratively. Looking for more great work? Here are some suggestions: