In July, an unlikely contestant entered a popular South Korean music competition for rappers.
Surprisingly, he was none other than a defector from Stalinist North Korea where Western-influenced pop music, especially rap, is strictly banned.
Kang Chun-hyuk, now 28, was only 12 when he crossed the Tumen River with his parents to reach China in 1998 and then South Korea three years later. Today, he is a senior art student at the prestigious Hongik University in Seoul and aspires to become a professional hip-hop artist.
Hailing from Onsong, a city in northeastern North Korea, Kang said in a recent interview that all his town has going for it are mines and statues of “Dear Leaders” Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
The two late leaders are the grandfather and the father of the North’s current leader, Kim Jong-un.
On the first episode of “Show Me The Money Season 3,” aired on a South Korean cable channel in July, Kang shocked the judges with lyrics that revealed disturbing facts about his communist home country.
“What my mother got from the mines was tuberculosis; what you got from her labor was A-bomb money,” he rapped. “Public execution? Ain’t afraid of that. It’s why I’m here, public audition!”
The brief performance won him a necklace in approval from show host Yang Dong-geun, a successful rapper in South Korea also known as YDG.
But Kang failed to make it past Round 2, as stage fright prevented him from finishing another original rap about his North Korean childhood.
Kang says he hadn’t always planned on becoming a hip hop artist. The music genre was just a vehicle of his choice to spread awareness about the North’s dire human rights conditions ― hundreds of thousands of North Koreans today are incarcerated in labor camps for transgressions as minor as walking over a picture of leader Kim Jong-un by accident.
Kang said his true specialty lies in fine arts, which had earned his family enough money to make ends meet in China, where they lived in seclusion for three years before fleeing to South Korea in 2001. There, he drew caricatures of K-pop artists, like the 1990s idols H.O.T. and Fin.K.L., and sold them for 1,000 to 2,000 yuan ($160 to 320 today) per piece, a hefty sum for a teenager.
At a North Korean elementary school, he was in charge of drawing murals of Mount Baekdusan and the Jong-il Peak, both symbols of the ruling Kim family, to mark the birth anniversaries of the country’s two late leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
Though Kang was eliminated well before the final round of the show, the aspiring artist said he hopes to have informed more South Koreans about the abject realities of North Korean people.
“Many people have approached me for pictures since the show,” he said. “Which makes me happy because it probably means they now know more about the situation up north.”
And so they may, as more than 600 people showed up for an exhibit in Seoul earlier this month that showcased Kang’s artwork portraying the lives of “kkotjebi,” or stray children in North Korean who pick up trash or steal harvests for survival. The drawings were based on his own experience of being one, Kang said.
Starting next month, Kang is also producing an album with YDG, who volunteered to teach him how to rap like a professional. The album is set to hit stores by the end of this year. (Yonhap)