SEOUL — When people think about North Korean art, they tend to visualize striking propaganda paintings of heroic soldiers and workers, screaming defiance at the United States and often framed by missiles.

But a recent exhibition of works by three North Korean defectors offered a very different view of their nation — and of their identities as artists and people, straddling the cultures of their divided Korean Peninsula.

The exhibition took place in Seoul before the current coronavirus lockdown. The three artists arrived in South Korea at different times in their lives, came from different backgrounds and have had different experiences as defectors.

But all have found personal expression through art.

'Confusion of Identity'

“It could be my self-portrait or the portrait of any North Korean defector, of their inner psychological state experiencing distortion and confusion,” said Kang Chun-hyuk, 34, who is also a rapper.

Kang arrived in North Korea in August 2001 when he was 17, after four years in China. He says he did not fit in at school when he first arrived, and he ended up working as a laborer until he was 25.

“I always wanted to be an artist when I was young, but when I set foot in South Korea — it’s a capitalist society and all about money — I started to forget my childhood ambition.”


“The barbed wire separates the people of South and North Korea, but nature knows no boundaries,” Kang said. “The dragonfly can cross freely.

“The morning dew on the barbed wire could symbolize a sense of sadness. The child is half reaching for the dragonfly, but even then is being so careful.”

'False Peace'

In April 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un went to Panmunjom on the border between North and South Korea to meet President Moon Jae-in for the first inter-Korean summit.

Kang said he found the euphoria at that time ridiculous.

“It was called a sign of peace, but I think we are being deceived again,” he said. “Has peace come? No, it hasn’t. Cameras were shooting them, but the reality is starving people.

“Below in the shadows, you can see the real North Korean people. These were the pictures I grew up watching; this reminds me of my childhood.”

'We are the Happiest in the World'

Many of Kang’s works depict the violence inherent in North Korean life. In this drawing, the children are carrying items such as a knife, a screwdriver, a bomb and handcuffs.

“I saw my first public execution when I was 9,” he said.

'The Village across the River'

This painting shows a defector looking back from South Korea toward his hometown in the North.

“You can’t go back even if you wanted to,” said artist Jeon Ju-yeong, 36. “The sky is open, the water is open, but you can’t cross back.”

The South is portrayed as a forest, while the defector is caught “in the middle, not on either side.”

“The forest is more lush, but it’s not a very friendly place,” Jeon said. “You have to go inside to see what it actually bears.”

Jeon arrived in South Korea in 2014 when he was 29, after a week-long journey.

“I only started learning art when I came to South Korea,” he said. “The art I grew up with, missiles and propaganda, didn’t speak to me. When I came to South Korea, I realized there was a different kind of artist. I didn’t imagine art could be so diverse.”


“This is trying to convey a sense of place, a sense of something being torn down, breaking down,” said artist Ahn Chung-guk, 24. “It’s a feeling I have in South Korea as well as North. What I am trying to convey is temporality seen in a space.”

Ahn says he never gives his artworks titles, preferring to let people approach them without prejudice.

“I think people try to define my art with my identity as a North Korean defector,” he said. “People also express surprise I am doing abstract art.”


Many of Ahn’s works show objects that appear to have been abandoned.

“Maybe because of my upbringing, I pay attention to things that have been abandoned, and I often find beauty in them,” he said.

Ahn’s full name literally means “dedication to the nation.” He left North Korea in 2009 when he was 14 years old.

“I don’t dislike or like that people associated me as being a North Korea defector, but it’s only a part of me. I lived in North Korea until I was 14; I spent a lot of formative years in South Korea. I have my own identity.”