Former North Korean propaganda artist Song Byeok takes to the canvas to speak out about a corrupt regime
Song holds an exhibit and appearance at the Goat Farm in February
Song Byeok raises his right hand to show what remains of the index finger he lost after living in a North Korean labor camp.
"From frostbite," the artist and satirist says through a translator on Skype in a Starbucks in Seoul, South Korea.
You wouldn't know it from looking at the upbeat yet soft-spoken Song, who sports thick, black glasses and a slim black suit, but he was once a North Korean propaganda artist. For seven years, Song created posters and placards aimed at exalting the late Kim Jong-il, the despot who oversaw the country's isolationist and totalitarian regime. In the late 1990s, Song fled the country and has since made a name painting works influenced by his years in North Korea and his newfound taste of freedom. On Feb. 17, the 42-year-old Song will kick off his first international exhibition in Atlanta with a 10-day showcase of his acrylic paintings at the Goat Farm Arts Center.
Song's life story sounds like it could have been scripted by Hollywood: After growing up in a small city roughly 30 kilometers outside of North Korea's capital city of Pyongyang, the young artist's talents attracted the attention of government officials. After college he was selected to become one of the state's propagandists. Song and his fellow artists were responsible for turning sketches of idyllic North Korean life into large-scale artworks: happy families and a smiling dictator alongside slogans such as "Let's become the bullet for General Kim Jong-il."
Song felt tremendous pride for the work, which he imagined continuing for the rest of his life. He had no idea that the world outside of North Korea's borders wasn't filled with Yankee imperialists — or that the government he glorified allowed mass starvation, operated labor camps, and permitted other atrocities.
In the late '90s, a decade-long famine reached its peak, leaving citizens starving to death throughout the country. The government's lack of response to the crisis caused Song to begin doubting the regime he promoted. One night in 2000, Song and his father attempted to swim across the Tumen River dividing North Korea and China to find food. Halfway across, his father was washed away. His body was never recovered. Upon returning to shore, Song was attacked and apprehended by North Korean border guards he'd asked for help. They imprisoned him in a labor camp for seven months. Two years later he finally escaped to China.
"I felt like I was visiting paradise," Song says as he recalls his first taste of life outside of North Korea. "I could feel the atmosphere on the street. There's electricity all the time. No blackouts. Lots of food. I could watch TV for 24 hours. This was the model of paradise."
Shortly afterward, Song fled to South Korea, where he attended art school and has made a modest living as an artist ever since. He recently paid two men $10,000 to shepherd his sister to China and then South Korea to join him. His mother, whom he last saw before he left, died during a 2004 famine.
The closest Song has come to returning to North Korea was during a college trip to the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, the tense and well-guarded buffer zone separating the two countries, which technically are still at war. Peering across the border from the safety of South Korea, he says he felt pity and sorry for the people.
"They still think that Kim Jong-un" — the son of Kim Jong-il who became the country's supreme leader in 2011 — "is the son of God," Song says. "They live like slaves. And they're still living in poverty with no freedom."
The first time he drew what he wanted on an empty white canvas felt like "real freedom," he says. And now that he's no longer required to re-create over-the-top scenes of smiling and joyful North Koreans living under the Great Leader, Song's devoted his talents to skewering the late Jong-il and the ideology his regime forced upon the nation. Song says he tries to raise awareness about North Koreans' plight and to give them a voice with his paintings.
Song's U.S. trip, which includes a stop in Washington, D.C., is being financed with a Kickstarter campaign. He'll auction one of his paintings on the Atlanta exhibition's opening night, proceeds of which he'll donate to a center for North Korean child refugees in Ansan, South Korea.
Many of his works, 20 of which will be on display at the Goat Farm, blend Eastern and Western cultural imagery and influences, as seen in "Take Off Your Clothes," a mashup of Kim Jong-il's grinning mug atop Marilyn Monroe's sultry figure. In another work, a startled North Korean soldier clutches Andy Warhol's iconic Campbell's soup can. Other pieces depict North Korean girls captivated by Western journalists or confront the late despot with the nation's poverty by placing him alongside a starving child.
"Not only is his artwork brilliant, but it explores the concept of freedom and sheds light on the insanity that is North Korea," says Helen Kim Ho, the executive director of the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center and one of Song's supporters. "It's fascinating to see the former 'Fearless Leader' through the eyes of his former propagandist turned dissident. To me it's a reminder of how precious and valuable democracy and fundamental human rights are. Art can lift that issue up and raise awareness better than anyone on a soap box."