LONDON – For seven years North Korean artist Song Byeok painted propaganda posters glorifying the world’s most secretive regime. Today, having defected to South Korea, he uses his talents to satirize his repressive homeland.
Growing up, Song says he revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung as a god, and was “100 percent” loyal to his son and successor, Kim Jong Il.
“I really believed we were the happiest people (in the world) because we had been brainwashed since childhood,” he said in London where he is showing his paintings.
The turning point came when Song was sent to a labor camp, which he likened to the concentration camps of World War II.
In the mid to late 1990s, North Korea was hit by a devastating famine which killed hundreds of thousands of people.
As his family grew weak from hunger, Song and his father decided to cross the Tumen River to China to find food to bring back.
When his father was swept away Song asked two border guards to help look for his body. He was immediately arrested and tortured.
The six months he spent in a labor camp nearly killed him, but also opened his eyes.
“They treated prisoners like animals, not as human beings. I saw many of my friends die,” Song said through an interpreter.
“In the morning I didn’t even want to open my eyes, I wanted to die,” he added. “When I heard birds singing I envied them their freedom.”
Months of hard labor and minimal food left him so ill that the guards believed he was about to die and let him go.
He was a “walking skeleton” when he turned up at his uncle’s home. His family did not even recognize him.
His right index finger had to be amputated because of an injury sustained during hard labor, and he has since had to relearn how to paint.
In 2001, having recovered his health, Song decided to escape North Korea. This time he carried poison with him so he could commit suicide if caught.
“My heart was breaking, thinking about when I could come back home and see my family again,” he said. “I couldn’t stop crying, and was thinking, ‘Who made me leave home like this?’ “
His mother died of hunger after he left.
In China, Song met a businessman who managed to get him to South Korea.
It was a massive culture shock. He still vividly recalls his astonishment on his first day at seeing an electric rice-cooker full of rice. But, remembering how his countrymen were starving, Song couldn’t bring himself to eat any of it.
After putting himself through art school, Song began creating satirical art to raise awareness of the suffering of his people.
Humor makes his work more accessible, says Song who has already exhibited in the United States and will be taking his London show to Frankfurt.
During his years as a propaganda artist, Song said he painted images of happy soldiers, farm laborers and factory workers with slogans like “Let’s walk forever with Kim Il Sung.”
One slogan he remembers painting is “Will you live as free people or slaves?” The irony, he says, is that North Koreans really do live as slaves.
Many of these slogans are incorporated into his satirical work, their meanings subverted by the accompanying imagery.
In one sketch, the slogan “We are happy” appears beside a starving child holding a baby.
His most famous painting shows Kim Jong Il’s face superimposed onto the body of actress Marilyn Monroe as she tries to hold down a billowing white dress.
Song’s paintings also send up current leader, Kim Jong Un, who took over in 2011 following his father’s death.
In one he is seen dancing in shorts made from an American flag, in another he ice-skates across North Korea — symbolizing the country’s frozen state.
The artist is one of some 25,000 North Koreans who have fled to South Korea in the last 20 years to escape famine and repression. Many others are in hiding in China.
But even in Seoul, Song continues to live in fear of the North Korean regime; his art has not gone unnoticed north of the border.
“They’ve said they will send agents to kill me,” he said. “Every day, when I go home, I worry there may be somebody waiting.”