SEOUL — Sun Mu thought he was done with the North Korean authorities, people who had controlled every aspect of his life for a quarter-century. But it turned out that the North Korean authorities weren’t done with him.
The artist — who once made military propaganda in North Korea — was preparing for his first solo show in Beijing late last year. The paintings satirizing North Korea’s platitudinous slogans — “North Korea is a good place to live” — and showing the late leader Kim Jong Il under an upside-down North Korean flag were hung on the gallery walls. The names of North Korean leaders were laid on the floor so that all guests would have to walk over them to enter the exhibition.
Then, on opening day, Chinese police showed up, along with a bunch of North Koreans wearing Kim Il Sung badges. Beijing may not have much love for the regime of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s current leader, but it has even less love for works that mock authoritarian communist institutions.
Chinese police shut down the show, confiscated the 70-odd paintings, and burned all but one of the books about the exhibition.
Sun Mu — who escaped from North Korea almost 20 years ago, uses a pseudonym meaning “no line” and refuses to allow his face to be shown in public to protect his family members who are still there — once again found himself fleeing China for South Korea.
“When I heard about what was happening, that people from the North Korean Embassy and Chinese officials had come down and blocked the streets, I was really surprised,” he said in an interview in his studio in Seoul this week, describing how he’d deliberately stayed away on opening day to avoid detection by the authorities.
The episode was recorded on camera by a documentary crew that was trailing the artist to make a film about his first show in China. That film, “I Am Sun Mu,” will have its U.S. premiere Sunday at the DOC NYC documentary film festival in New York.
Although the world has no shortage of critics of North Korea’s repressive regime, Sun Mu takes a different approach. He uses North Korea’s propaganda and subverts it to mock the regime.
There’s Kim Jong Un, leader of the fantasy land his family created, with Mickey Mouse ears and surrounded by Disney characters. There’s Kim Jong Il, not in his trademark olive jumpsuit but in a pink Nike track suit. There are the smiling children with the North Korean catchphrase, “We have nothing to envy in this world.”
As a young man in North Korea, Sun Mu was singled out for his artistic talent during his compulsory military service and sent to the propaganda unit, where he spent his days painting pictures of brave North Korean soldiers bayoneting American and Japanese imperialists.
Propaganda, in the socialist realist style of art, plays an important role for the North Korean regime, which restricts almost all access to outside information and instead tells its residents that they’re the luckiest people on Earth.
As far as military service went, Sun Mu says this wasn’t a bad job. He was able to paint all day, even if he had little artistic freedom.
“There were templates we had to follow, but we could tweak them a bit,” he said. “I could change the uniforms or I could add a few missiles.”
As the mid-1990s famine started killing North Koreans by the hundreds of thousands, Sun Mu escaped to China and eventually made his way to South Korea.
Here, he studied art at Seoul’s Hongik University and tried to emulate the styles he saw. He realized that he had an unusual background and could occupy a niche.
“I started to have confidence in painting in my style, in my colors,” said Sun Mu, who produces a lot of work in red and blue, the colors of the North Korean flag.
From the outset, Sun Mu’s creations proved controversial — and not just in China.
Some of the artworks — such as the paintings of children in communist uniforms and the slogan “We are happy” or “We like peace” — would not look out of place in North Korea. But juxtaposed with his more obviously mocking works, such as Kim Jong Un with Jesus-like hair and beard, they show the lie that is North Korean propaganda.
When he started exhibiting in South Korea almost a decade ago, Sun Mu attracted a lot of attention. The wrong kind of attention.
Under South Korea’s National Security Law, which prohibits “aiding the enemy,” it’s a serious crime to sympathize with or support North Korea. Even today, North Korean news Web sites are blocked in South Korea, ostensibly for security reasons, although it’s hard to believe that latte-drinking, smartphone-toting South Koreans would find anything appealing in them.
Sun Mu was soon investigated for his “pro-Communist” paintings, and struggled to make authorities understand his subtle subversion.
Even over the summer, at an exhibition that included real North Korean propaganda posters, Sun Mu said he was questioned about a work he contributed that showed a South Korean boy and a North Korean girl running hand in hand.
“In North Korea, I produced propaganda for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il,” he said. “Now in South Korea, I’m working on my own propaganda, on my story, because everything I paint is based on my experience in North Korea, and I don’t want that to be used as South Korean propaganda.”
Documentary director Adam Sjoberg, who worked with Liberty in North Korea, a California-based group that helps North Korean defectors, said he hoped his film would help Americans understand North Korea more deeply.
“I want them to understand his brokenhearted perspective about his daughter not being able to send a letter to her grandfather” in North Korea, Sjoberg said. “That’s the kind of thing I want people to know about North Korea, not about this ridiculous leader threatening everyone with nuclear bombs or hanging out with Dennis Rodman.”
For Sun Mu, at least, there has been one positive development since the documentary was filmed. He recently managed to get his paintings back from the Chinese authorities. “Maybe it’s because so much time has passed, and maybe it’s because the Chinese don’t want to take orders from North Korea anymore,” he said.
The next challenge: getting the paintings out of China.