And the Cure for Millennial Burnout Is…This Giant Penguin

Pengsoo was created for children’s television, yet it became such a surprise sensation with adults that it was named South Korea’s person of the year. Now it's ready to take over the globe.

And the Cure for Millennial Burnout Is…This Giant Penguin

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 onto Pengsoo’s toweringly tall frame — at nearly 7 feet tall, Pengsoo is almost twice the height of the average emperor penguin — and its large, unblinking eyes, which, when you stare into them for too long, can come across as somewhat eerie. (Pengsoo is referred to as “it” for reasons that will be explained a bit later.)

“The other penguins didn’t play with me because I was too big,” 10-year-old Pengsoo, donning a pair of red-and-yellow headphones, told producers at a studio in the Korea Educational Broadcasting System (EBS) headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, in April 2019. Sitting in a gray room, empty save for 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.

Pengsoo’s audition at EBS.

By that point, Pengsoo had accrued 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.

A crowd of people waiting in line to get their photos taken with a Pengsoo statue at Gwangalli Beach, Busan, August 2020. Photos courtesy author.

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 motley mix of nontraditional identities: Despite having a deep, scruffy voice that people often compare to that of a middle-aged man, Pengsoo is, at 10 years old, technically a child, and is also genderless.

An episode in which an investigator attempts to ascertain whether Pengsoo is indeed a penguin or a human in a penguin suit.

A year and a half after that initial “interview” — which was broadcast on EBS before being uploaded to YouTube — Pengsoo has become a national sensation. More than two million subscribers follow Pengsoo’s antics on the Giant PengTV YouTube channel, and Pengsoo’s image can be found almost everywhere in cosmopolitan Seoul: Its likeness is seen on advertisements plastered on buses revving down crowded roads, in the windows of ubiquitous bakery chains, on ice-cream wrappers, as social media emoji, and on phone cases, notebooks and other cutesy paraphernalia in South Korea’s many stationery stores.

Snacks with the image of Pengsoo sold at a supermarket, in Seoul.

Episodes of its show air on the EBS network every Monday and Friday, with each episode subsequently uploaded to Pengsoo’s YouTube channel. To date, its videos — ranging from day-in-the-life vlogs to collaborations with other South Korean stars, human and otherwise — have amassed more than 272 million views.

It’s a level of fame that’s 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 that “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 antics of another famous South Korean penguin, Pororo, since the animated television series Pororo the Little Penguin first aired on EBS in 2003. Pororo is a beloved figure in South Korea, his round face printed on children’s beverages and playgrounds.

Despite their shared species and network affiliation, Pengsoo and Pororo are vastly different. The bespectacled and helmet-wearing Pororo inhabits a fictional world alongside a coterie of similarly adorable animal friends, while Pengsoo navigates modern-day, real-life South Korea as the main act. Pengsoo thinks of Pororo as a nemesis: “I came to EBS to beat out Pororo,” it told producers during the first episode of Giant PengTV.

Pengsoo dancing on stage with members of BTS at the Golden Disc Awards 2020, South Korea’s version of the Grammys. (GIF via koreaboo.com)

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 an impassioned — and visible — frenzy. On Instagram, a search for “Pengsoo” reveals multiple fan accounts and dozens of images of Pengsoo-related merchandise — keychains and energy drinks and calendars and cakes — that have taken off in the last year.

In South Korea, where it isn’t uncommon to find the faces of K-pop celebrities emblazoned on everything from large billboards to cheap 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 survey of “Person of the Year”?

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 South Korean internet, buoyed by a rising crest of working-age millennials who were jaded and disaffected 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 of that year alone. The terms “destroyed nation,” “the hellish peninsula” and “doggish country” followed closely on its tails, often accompanied by deadpan memes and comments of despair.

“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 as a programmer at an IT company in the fall of 2016 to pursue his dream of becoming a voice actor. His attempt at balancing his work and his passion was draining both his energy and focus, he says. Despite the stability of the job, he had become exhausted by what it demanded of him.

Yet 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 up when it’s incredibly difficult to buy a home; since 2017, average home prices in Seoul have soared by 50 percent, 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. He flicked through the channels, one by one, until he came across EBS. By then, the channel was a familiar choice; Kim enjoyed watching kids’ shows because they featured lots of voice acting.

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.

Clip from Pengsoo’s first episode, in which it beatboxes in front of a classroom full of kids.

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, who has bright yellow hair that he wears in a ponytail. Skyping from a loud cafe, he speaks while pressing the microphone against his mouth, frequently 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 continues to leave enthusiastic comments on Pengsoo’s YouTube videos, supporting it in whatever it does.

Pengsoo’s cover of ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ from Toy Story.

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 most well-known quote among viewers: “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 now entered viewers’ daily lexicons: “Peng-love-you,” a portmanteau of “Pengsoo” and “I 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. If I could’ve gotten comfort and strength from Pengsoo then, would I have had the motivation to get through the difficult parts of office life?”

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 that are amusing, even downright hair-raising, for those who work in rigid office environments. Pengsoo calls its bosses at EBS by their first names, never hesitates to snatch up 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.”

“I guess from the working person’s point of view,” wrote Song Chang Yong, a work-life columnist at the Economic Review, in January 2020, “Pengsoo’s peculiar manners make it … as authentic as one can get.”

Jieun Jeon, a 31-year-old office worker at a small social enterprise company based 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 had 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, whom she speaks of fondly while cupping her hands against her chest. Jeon has watched some Pengsoo episodes up to 20 times; when asked which one is her favorite, she says, “It’s hard to choose, because I rewatch so many of them.” 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 real 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, where the national language uses honorifics to reflect age differences between speakers, age-based hierarchies play a significant role in social environments like schools and workplaces. Jeon believes that by pushing back against deep-rooted 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. To prove her point, she opened a December 2019 edition of NYLON magazine, in which Pengsoo — a character often misgendered as male, given its low, scruffy voice — is shown styling makeup, dresses and nail polish. 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 she watched growing up.

“If the previous generation’s mantra was ‘grit your teeth and bear it,’ this generation’s mind-set 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.”

Me at a chain coffee shop in Seoul, next to a promotional Pengsoo cutout.

Gong, her colleague, says that, “I think watching Pengsoo consoles millennials and helps them believe that they can be their own person — and still be loved.”

Looking ahead, the writers hope that Pengsoo will become popular globally. “I’d love to broaden the age group and nationality range of fans who love and appreciate Pengsoo,” says Yeum. English captions were added to Pengsoo’s YouTube videos starting with Season 2, and the show’s producers have been talking about the penguin to publications across the world. The South China Morning Post noted that Pengsoo could become “the next big South Korean cultural export to go global.” A quick scroll of Pengsoo’s social media accounts reveals that Pengsoo already has fans from a range of countries, including China, Russia, Indonesia and the United States.

And it’s not just millennials, either. My 52-year-old mother watches Giant PengTV on her iPad almost every evening after work, following its antics as if it were a close friend. Her day can easily be made with an ice cream that features Pengsoo’s face, or stickers that she can collect and share 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. It says all that it wants to say, and I admire that.”

She isn’t alone. Out of the more than 12,000 members on the first Pengsoo “fan cafe,” a Reddit-like site where Pengsoo fans can gather virtually and share Pengsoo news, there are more or less the same number of members in their 20s and 30s as those in their 40s and 50s, according to the page’s founder.

Once considered an outcast, Pengsoo is now living in a yellow-walled 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, and it doesn’t seem like its popularity will wane anytime soon.

It seems that the hard work Pengsoo promised has paid off.