While Pyongyang threatens Seoul with poetic flourishes like burying the city under a nuclear “sea of fire,” an artist and North Korean defector living in the city presents for the South Korean public his own aesthetic flourish on the North, just in time for Kim Il-sung’s birthday.
The North will celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the country’s current leader, on April 15. Officials in the United States and South Korea speculate that North Korea could even be angling another provocative missile test as part of the planned birthday celebrations.
The artist said the timing of the exhibition was deliberate. He wants to deliver a personal birthday message with his artwork to Kim Jong-un.
“I want to use this exhibition and my art to send a message to North Korea and to Kim Jong-un that he should give his people unbridled and absolute freedom on his grandfather’s birthday,” said artist Song Byeok in an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday.
Song Byeok poses for a photo in front of some of his paintings during an interview with The Korea Herald at his studio in southern Seoul on Monday. Song’s exhibition at Conoi gallery in Sinsa-dong runs until April 23. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)
Song Byeok (a pseudonym he uses out of fear of retribution against relatives and friends in North Korea) will have an opening reception for his exhibition, “A message of peace” at Connoi, a gallery in Sinsa-dong in southern Seoul, today (Wednesday) at 6 p.m. The exhibition runs until April 23.
Song worked as a painter in the North, creating billboard-sized signage extolling the regime and its dynastic Kim family with heroic illustrations and bombastic slogans.
Song’s world was turned upside down in the 1990s, however, when famine struck North Korea. His father, mother, and sister all died later. He was arrested, sent to a work camp and even tortured by the government he once idolized and promoted with propaganda.
He defected by way of China to South Korea in 2002, where he now lives, working from a small and, for an artist, surprisingly clean studio in southern Seoul where he paints propaganda-inspired works that mock the North Korean state and demonstrate his new-found freedom.
“When I was growing up in North Korea I had no idea what living in a free country really meant. I could not have any idea until coming to South Korea,” he said. “After coming here, I began to think of the reasons for this. In particular I though about why one cannot even think freely, imagine what one wants to imagine, while living in a place like North Korea. I began to wonder what is required to think freely.”
Song also said he hopes his work might help South Koreans get to better know their northern neighbors, who he believes are entirely misunderstood here.
“I believe people here in South Korea really do not understand North Korea or North Koreans,” he said. “Even though South Koreans say that the North and the South are parts of the same country, they treat North Koreans who live here like we are from a different country.”
“I want to break through political rhetoric and show the South Korean public real people in North Korea.”
By Philip Iglauer (email@example.com