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Artist exacts revenge on North Korea regime

Song Byeok once did the soulless work of drawing idyllic North Korean propaganda posters for Kim Jong Il's totalitarian regime. Since defecting, he has turned his creative talents to skewering it.

February 06, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Song Byeok is a former creator of North Korean propaganda posters who defected and now lives in South Korea and does a very different kind of art poking fun at the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong il.
Song Byeok is a former creator of North Korean propaganda posters who defected… (Matt Douma, For The Times )

Reporting from Seoul — For seven long years, Song Byeok performed the soulless work of drawing idyllic North Korean propaganda posters for Kim Jong Il's totalitarian regime.

The intricate images he produced were dictated by the state. Song was handed a sketch, always of people happy and smiling, which the young artist dutifully brought to life with brush and paint.

"You had to do exactly what they wanted," he recalled. "If you did one little thing differently, your whole family could be imprisoned as enemies of the state. But I never questioned the work. At the time, I was completely brainwashed."

Song is no longer brainwashed. Since defecting from North Korea in 2002, the artist has settled in Seoul, where he has turned his creative talents to skewering the ruthless regime he says let his father die and confined Song himself to the gulag, where he almost died of starvation and infection.

The outspoken 42-year-old painter and sculptor recently finished "Forever Freedom," a weeklong showing of his work that features about 30 pieces. It's his way of telling the story of life inside the world's cruelest dictatorship, he says.

The "Dear Leader" has become a favorite target. On this artist's canvas, Kim is portrayed as a cartoonish character, someone to be laughed at, beneath dignity.

In one of his most popular works, Song placed the head of the despot above the body of Marilyn Monroe in her iconic pose playfully holding down her dress in an updraft. Song sees poignancy in the comparison.

"She's trying to hide something," he said, "just like Kim Jong Il hides things."

In the North, such blasphemous images would earn him a death sentence. But Song, a self-described former puppet, can now ridicule the once high-and-mighty puppeteer.

The path that has allowed Song to express himself freely has been a rough one. Like most North Korean defectors, he has struggled to find his place in the bustling, wealth-conscious society of South Korea. At university, where he studied art, he once offered a needle and thread to a woman wearing fashionably ripped blue jeans because he thought she was too poor to afford a new pair.

And Song knows poverty. He dresses simply, in a pair of knock-off designer glasses and a scarf twirled rakishly around his neck. To pay for the expensive canvases he uses to exact his artistic revenge on North Korea, he works as a laborer, washing dishes and moving furniture.

In recent times, he has fallen six months behind in the rent for his tiny studio. Though a gallery owner donated the space for Song's current show, the artist had to borrow money to produce the colorful brochures for his one-man display, a debt he said will take months to repay, especially because Song doesn't sell his work. If an admirer liked one of his paintings and asked for it, he'd give it away for free.

Even though he could use the money, he says, the chance to turn art into a weapon against Kim is payment enough. "I want to tell the world the secrets being kept by North Korea," he said. "My artwork is that conversation."

Born in rural North Korea, the son of an electrician, Song took a liking to art and began making sketches of the world around him. As an adult, working as a laborer in Pyongyang, the capital, Song was offered work in the propaganda unit by a government official who had noticed a sketchbook of his.

In 2000, Song's life began to come apart. One night, amid the North's severe food shortages, he and his father swam across a river toward China to borrow grain from relatives. His father suddenly was swept away by the current. Song screamed for help as North Korean soldiers looked on, refusing to intervene.

"That's when I began to hate North Korea," Song said. "I was just hungry. That's why I tried to cross the river. But no matter how serious your crime, you should save people first and then talk about their offense. But they refused to save my father."

The soldiers also beat Song, who was later sentenced to the gulag. For months, without gloves, he worked hauling logs down a snowy mountainside. He lost weight, slowly starving until one day the index finger of his right hand became infected.

"They wouldn't help me," he said. "I wasn't human. I didn't deserve antibiotics." As he lay near death, unable to work, his finger black and swollen and infection spreading through his body, his captors suddenly let him go: They thought he would soon die and didn't want the responsibility of burying his body, he says.

Song made his way back to Pyongyang, where he was so poor that he couldn't afford anesthesia when a doctor amputated half of his finger.

"At that point, I was so near death, I couldn't feel anything." Song still struggles to hold a brush with his damaged hand.

His work often includes images of butterflies, simple insects that he says have a better life than most North Koreans; their wings give them freedom.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Jung-yoon Choi in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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