In partnership with Sandbrush Inc., Woolly Mammoth’s lobby is doubling as an art gallery through the run of You for Me for You, featuring an exhibit by Korean pop artist Song Byeok. Once an Official State Propaganda Artist of North Korea, Song’s faith in Kim Jong-il was ultimately betrayed when famine struck in the 1990s. Millions of people, including Song’s father, mother, and sister perished. Song endured brutal torture at the hands of the regime he once praised in his work. His crime: attempting to cross into China to find food. Now dedicated to promoting freedom, he paints acrylic pieces that satirize oppressive regimes worldwide. Song has been featured in major international media including CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera.
Woolly recently hosted Song in DC, where he made appearances at American University, the Corcoran College of Art and Design, and the University of the District of Columbia. Song spoke with Woolly’s Literary Manager, John M. Baker, about defecting from North Korea and his art, then and now:
John M. Baker: How did you come to be a North Korean propaganda artist?
Song Byeok: I taught myself how to paint in high school, focusing predominantly on landscapes, and this developed into a personal hobby that I pursued independently. Upon graduating, I joined a smelting factory as a laborer, yet continued to paint in private when time was available. Later on, at age 24, a government official saw my artwork and recommended me to a superior office whereupon I was selected to become an official state propaganda artist. I never received formal artistic training inside the DPRK; instead, I was given a manual that dictated the style and content of all my professional work.
JB: Back then, what did it feel like to create art for North Korea?
SB: I was born and educated in North Korea. As such, I felt great pride supporting my home country in my art; moreover, I was honored to serve Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, in particular, by way of my talent and technique. This overflowing sense of pride oftentimes inspired me to paint all night.
JB: Why did you first attempt to cross into China? What was the experience like?
SB: I attempted to cross into China with my father in 2000 to find food for our family. I remember that it was after Kim Dae-jung, the former president of South Korea, visited North Korea. When my father and I tried to cross the Tumen River, which was swollen because of heavy rains, my father was swept away by a powerful current. I ran to nearby guards begging for help. Instead of saving my father’s life, they forcibly marched me to a prison. Soon after I was detained in a labor camp.
JB: What made you decide to defect?
SB: Human rights did not exist in the labor camp. Men were stripped of their dignity and the sanctity of life was completely ignored. I realized that responsibility for this cruel circumstance lay not with the prison camp, but with the authoritarian Kim regime that had constructed and perpetuated the social conditions necessary for such a place to exist. Becoming disillusioned, I made up my mind to escape North Korea even though I was aware of the grave personal risks involved.
JB: What was your life like in the labor camp after you were caught attempting to cross into China?
SB: I was already aware of the labor camps, but I never imagined that I would find myself behind barbed wire—this was the destination for criminals and traitors, only. I neither committed a crime, nor treason. The state, under Kim Jong-il, had failed to provide for its own people and my family was starving as a consequence. While my attempt to cross into China to secure food was born from necessity—and not initially a political act of defection—it ultimately led me to the labor camp because of a repressive law instituted by the government. My family’s starvation, and the starvation of millions of North Koreans, revealed the Kim regime’s failure, which the state made every effort to hide from the world for fear of delegitimization.
Never had I been treated that way before. In the prison camp, under extremely poor conditions, the imprisoned became subhuman. In fact, we were told by the guards that we were inferior to animals. Forced labor, harsh beatings, and group punishment became routine. No man could bear more than three months. Upon collapsing, prisoners did not receive medical treatment and could only await death by starvation. I witnessed five individuals pass away in such a manner before the guards hauled their corpses away. When I finally collapsed and experienced the death of a prisoner lying beside me, I was overwhelmed by a physical, mental, and spiritual deathblow. This moment, in particular, prompted me to reflect on the failure and hypocrisy of the Kim regime. I then made the decision to escape North Korea if I ever left the prison camp alive. To me, the freedom to dream and hope was worth risking my life for.
JB: How would you describe the transition from living in North Korea to living in South Korea?
SB: When I finally arrived in South Korea, I initially experienced post-traumatic stress as a result of my parents’ death, my separation from family members, and an acute awareness of the horrifying reality in North Korea. These memories continue to haunt me. South Korea, in contrast to North Korea, has instituted democratic freedoms and presently benefits from abundant resources. Beggars I encounter on the street never request food, but money. The stark differences between North and South immediately raised a number of fundamental questions like—Why does North Korea suffer so? What is the root problem? North Korea, like South Korea, triumphs human rights, personal dignity, and democratic freedoms. North Korean propaganda constantly proclaims these conditions exist in society by virtue of the Kim regime’s benevolent leadership and protection. But where? They surely do not exist in bowing to a statue of Kim Il-Sung or worshipping Kim Jong-Il as God. Here, in South Korea, I was immediately struck by how blessed the citizens truly are. It wasn’t easy for me to understand South Korea at the outset because of dramatically different social norms, worldviews, and fashion. Especially fashion. A few years after I arrived, I saw a fellow student at my university wearing jeans with noticeable tears. Feeling deep compassion for his unfortunate circumstance, I handed him money to purchase a new pair. He paused, and then informed me that jeans with such tears cost more than jeans without. Truly baffling. In fact, my first “culture shock” moment was seeing teenagers with dyed red and yellow hair. I was terrified. My transition and subsequent embrace of South Korean society did not take days, weeks, or months, but years.
JB: What were our first impressions of the United States?
SB: While growing up in North Korea I was instructed that America is a place where criminals rule and the general public is under constant threat of gun violence. As such, citizens need to exercise extreme caution to avoid getting shot to death. To be honest, I revisited these fears before my first international exhibition; however, my greatest concern was how an American audience would receive North Korean art.
After executing successful exhibitions both in Atlanta and D.C., and accepting invitations from professors to lecture at a number of universities, I was very impressed with the warm-hearted attendees willing to reach out, communicate with me, and share their ideas and compassion while always smiling. I was quite fascinated with how communities with different perspectives can communicate and collaborate through art. I also learned how America plays an active role in innovation across various fields, including arts, literature, politics, and economics, as well as how problematic it is for the North Korean people to see the U.S as an enemy. I am now thinking a lot more about my role in a global community.
JB: In North Korea, you were never allowed to sign your paintings. Now you’re able to, but you sign them with an alias. Why?
SB: I was not allowed to sign my paintings until I arrived in South Korea, where I now use a personalized stamp to mark my artwork. Song Byeok is an alias I designed to help me start over as an artist after escaping North Korea. Now I’m open to experiencing new life in a larger, more interdependent world, and my alias symbolizes this personal transformation. Song is my family name and Byeok means “blue” as in the Chinese character “碧,” and “wall” in the Korean “벽.” Every human carries a wall in his or her mind in the same way that every country has boundaries. It’s this wall that breeds conflict, violence, and war. I named myself Byeok because I hope my art will play a part in transforming our beautiful, blue earth into a global community.
JB: How does the sense of purpose behind your art now differ from the sense of purpose behind the art you used to make?
SB: My art in the past was committed to sustaining a totalitarian state where freedom of expression does not exist and artists are required to create works in service of authority.
In contrast, my art today is dedicated to free expression, universal human rights, positive change in North Korea, and reconciliation between nations. I want to deliver a message of hope and change to the oppressed throughout the world. I want to play a constructive role in our global community as a contemporary artist. This is my motivation and my direction.