North Korean artist Song Byeok: from propaganda painter to political refu­gee

As North Korea prepared to launch a rocket, one of its native sons prepared to show Washington D.C. a very different display of might: a painting of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in a dress. Once subject to the country’s authoritarian power, painter Song Byeok now works to subvert it through his humiliating images of the Dear Leader, and satirical portraits of his devoted countrymen.

Song went from a propaganda painter for the regime to a political prisoner to, now, a dissident artist. His work is being shown for the first time in Washington at The Dunes, an event space near Columbia Heights. The show opens Friday night at 7 p.m. and will run through April 30.

Song’s story begins as so many other artists’ stories do: with a childhood sketchbook. His work caught the eye of a government official in his town outside of Pyongyang, and he was drafted into service as an official propaganda painter for the regime. Every day, a Community party boss would give him a sketch that he would paint precisely.

“In North Korea, there is no creativity,” said Song through a translator, Nicole O. Conrad, an art professor at Central Texas College who helped organize the show. Nevertheless, he was “very proud” to work for Kim Jong Il, painting propaganda posters with sayings like, “Let’s Become the Bullet for General Kim Jong Il.”

When a depression in the 1990s left many parts of the country affected by famine, Song and his father, facing starvation, attempted to flee the country to find food. They swam across a river to China, but his father was washed away, and his body was never found. Song was arrested for the escape attempt and was sent to a prison camp where he almost starved.

“There is no word to explain hunger,” he said. “That was the saddest thing in the whole world.”

Song served time in a prison camp, but grew so weak, it wasn’t long before he could no longer work. Leaders of the camp released him because they thought he was going to die. He recovered enough strength to make his way to China, and then, in 2002, to South Korea. He began to paint again in 2003, when he enrolled in art school.

Song started by painting freedom — whether in the form of a Korean boy sprouting wings, or a mountain vista. It didn’t matter, as long as it was his own blank canvas, covered in his own ideas. He didn’t attempt to paint his former leader until only a year ago.

“Take Your Clothes Off,” a portrait of Kim Jong Il as Marilyn Monroe in her famous subway grate scene from “The Seven Year Itch,” is the centerpiece of the exhibition. It’s doubly humiliating to the Dear Leader — not just for the gender-bending emasculation, but as a symbol of sexual liberation and freedom. Song said that he was afraid to paint Kim Jong Il at first, but then decided that, as an artist, it was something he must do.

Song said that when he learned of Kim Jong Il’s death, he said, “You are not a god, and you are not the son of god.” Still, his motivation to paint him in compromising situations has diminished some, since his death.

“He is a human being, too,” he said. “As our leader, he should have provided the necessary things for the North Korean people, but he didn’t do his job... he should have provided for his people.”

As for Kim Jong Eun, the country’s new leader, Song isn’t sure how he will paint him yet — but he’s certain that it will be humorous and satirical.

Kim Jong Il appears in many of Song’s paintings, but children appear in many more. He sees indoctrination through their eyes, whether they’re the starving, bare-legged kids who embrace Kim Jong Il, the person who put them in that state, or they’re the dead-eyed children in military dress. In one painting, titled “Juche,” a girl illustrates the twisted education that North Korean children receive: She is shown thinking about children in South Korea, who, to her, live in slums.

“America does not own Song Byeok's artwork, and South Korea does not own his artwork,” said Gregory Pence, one of the organizers of the exhibition, and a Fulbright scholar in South Korea who brought Song’s work to Georgia and then D.C. through a Kickstarter fundraising campaign. “His journey to artistic freedom resonates everywhere. We've seen it in former Soviet Bloc countries, where he's found a fanbase, and also Latin America. It's all just a function of his talent.”

Song works under an assumed name now, to protect family and friends who are still in North Korea. As his opportunities to show his work grow bigger, so does his fame, and he worries every day that his identity could be discovered. He’s not sure what he’ll do if that happens, but he is “hoping that maybe by that time, North Korea will be reformed.” As for the rocket, Song says that he would rather not comment on it, but hopes for stability in the peninsula.

Nevertheless, he is seeking the spotlight and a wider audience for his work. He says that his goal is to become a world-famous painter like Picasso, one of his idols, and that his subjects won’t be just Korean anymore. After this trip, he hopes to make art about America, too. His time in Washington — in particular, a walk down to the White House — has inspired him. He said he was surprised by the diversity of the people visiting the city, with their different languages, skin tones and nationalities.

“I was wondering when that will happen in North Korea,” he said, of the diversity. “[Americans] have a kinder heart. Everyone says hello here.”

 
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