Saturday, March 24, 2012

Former North Korean Propaganda Artist Turns to Pop Art


After escape from North Korea, artist turns from propaganda to pop art
By Paul Ferguson, CNN
updated 12:26 AM EDT, Sun March 25, 2012

Atlanta (CNN) -- Song Byeok had every reason to be pleased with his success. A gift for drawing led to a prestigious career as a propaganda artist and full membership in North Korea's communist party.

Then the food shortages started.

Like tens of thousands of other North Koreans in the mid-1990s, Song made forays across the Tumen River to find food in China. Despite witnessing a better material life across the border, he says, he never doubted that North Korea was culturally superior. He never considered leaving his homeland for anything more than food.

"I was a believer. I saw North Koreans as pure," Song said. "And we needed the Great Leader to protect us from outsiders."

Today, Song paints in Seoul, South Korea, his art haunted by his former whole-hearted belief in the North Korean regime. Song's paintings chronicle a personal, often agonizing journey from child-like allegiance to the country's founder and "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung, and his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, to Song's life today as a contemporary artist.

In his former life, he would paint boyish-looking soldiers with heroic features across an entire side of a factory to inspire workers with the same patriotism he believed in.

His current paintings explore themes of freedom while skewering his former devotion to North Korea's leaders. He paints children in military uniforms, their heads bowed and eyes closed. His trademark work shows Kim Jong Il's face atop Marilyn Monroe's famous film pose on a sidewalk grate, holding down her skirt as it billows around her hips.

The painting created a stir in South Korea, where American Greg Pence saw it and raised funds on Kickstarter to exhibit Song's work this winter in Washington and Atlanta.

Song is passionate and sometimes brooding when discussing North Korea but gracious and open about his deeply personal passage from propaganda artist to painter who anguishes over oppression in North Korea.

Song's journey to disbelief began the moment he watched, helpless, as his father was caught in a current during a river crossing to China and drowned. Song was halfway across when his father was swept away; he swam back but was unable to rescue him. Despondent, Song searched for his father's body along the riverbank but was captured by North Korean border guards.

Despite his rank as a party member, getting caught meant questioning and torture by North Korean guards to confirm that he was not working for the South Koreans or the foreign missionaries based in China who proselytize among defectors.

"There were no exceptions," he said. "All who are caught are investigated."

In North Korea, a brutal choice

The torment of not recovering his father's remains was much greater than the broken teeth and beatings, Song said. The beatings were so harsh, he said, he was close to death, and he believes that he was released so he would not die in custody.

More than bones, the guards' treatment broke Song's belief in the regime. He describes the moment he left jail as if a veil had been lifted: He saw the world with a new clarity. As he hobbled through the streets, wondering how he'd get home, he decided he wanted a different life. He decided to defect.

In a country of 25 million, only about 20,000 have defected and settled in South Korea, according to the South Korean government. There are no precise figures for how many defectors live in hiding in China; estimates from governments, researchers and non-governmental organizations vary from 25,000 to more than 400,000.

"When people are picked up in China and repatriated, they face prosecution back in North Korea if they are believed to have met with South Koreans or missionaries," said Marcus Noland, a North Korea specialist at the Peterson Institute.

China labels North Korean escapees "economic migrants" and forcibly returns them despite accounts of torture and execution. So those hoping to defect must make their way across China to a third country.

Of those North Koreans interviewed in China, only about one in 10 say they left because of a longing for freedom, according to W. Courtland Robinson, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the issue for more than a decade.

The vast majority who leave give the same explanation Song did for his pre-defector forays into China during the famine: the search for work or food.

"The (North Korean) system is so integral to who you are," Robinson said. "People generally don't say 'I am frustrated, and I want out.' "

Song's paintings explore that theme: a devotion to serving North Korea's leaders so strong that citizens view it as part of their identity.

"Flower Children" shows a gaggle of smiling, uniformed schoolgirls waving and holding North Korea's standard reading primers, "The Story of Kim Jong Il's Childhood" and "History of Kim Il Sung."

The girls exude childish charm, but some faces show a weariness that only comes with age, and their eyes are all closed. Their shoes have holes.

"They believe they are happy," Song said. "They believe they are so much better off than the rest of the world because of their two leaders, who are like two suns."

Read the full story and view images HERE.

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