South Korea has a new idol – a giant genderless penguin with a gruff voice, a brazen attitude and a hunger for fame.
Its name is Pengsoo, and by most normal mascot measures, it’s not cute.
It tells people not to cheer it up, is often decked in sunglasses and its voice sounds like that of a middle aged man despite being 10 years old.
Yet the expressionless giant penguin, which was initially aimed at children, has now gained a large fan base amongst many millennials who find its blunt personality refreshing.
The 2.1m giant penguin was even named South Korea’s “Person of the Year” – despite obviously not being a person – even beating contenders like K-pop phenomenon BTS.
The back talking penguin
The 10-year-old penguin is originally from the Antarctic, but made its way to South Korea to become a star, according to Pengsoo’s creators, the Education Broadcasting System (EBS).
Its goals, they said, were to emulate Pororo, the cute goggle-wearing character loved by children all across the country. It also wanted to be more popular than BTS.
It’s “it” because Pengsoo is neither male nor female – EBS, where officially Pengsoo is works as trainee, are keen to stress that point.
EBS producer Lee Seulyena told the
Pengsoo is also a popular guest on talk shows and TV programmes. He’s even met the foreign minister of South Korea, Kang Kyung-wha.
But what’s the appeal?
The company behind Pengsoo says its appeal lies in its ability to “not be tied to hierarchy or rank” but yet still hold a form of “childlike innocence”.
In multiple videos, it refers to the chief of EBS Kim Myung-joong without the expected honorific “Sajangnim” – a term of respect used to refer to someone older or in a higher position.
It also often jokingly blames Mr Kim when something goes wrong, akin to someone blaming their boss for all their problems.
“Pengsoo treats everyone equally whether its counterpart is a lawmaker, a company president or a famous celebrity. This is really charming,” one 31-year-old engineer and Pengsoo fan told news agency Yonhap News.
“Pengsoo speaks for what office workers in their twenties and thirties think (but cannot say),” analyst Ha In-Whan from Seoul-based Meritz Securities Co said in a report.
“The audacity to refer to the head of its company without honorifics and say, ‘Don’t tell me to cheer up when I can’t,’ draws empathy.”
Pengsoo also brags that it’s a “superstar”, something that goes against South Korean society, where people are taught to be outwardly modest and humble.
According to Mr Ha, Pengsoo could eventually go on to be worth more than Pororo as its character is more popular among those in their 20s and 30s – those with greater purchasing power.
The Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade also say there is the potential of Pengsoo going global, according to a report by The Diplomat.
So don’t be surprised if you soon see a giant gruffy penguin pop up around you, it’s just Pengsoo.