North Korean defector progresses from propaganda to art exhibit in Seoul

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – The face in the painting is North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s, smiling beneath his trademark sunglasses and wall of black hair. But the body is Marilyn Monroe’s, pushing down her white dress in an updraft.

This striking image, part of an art exhibition by North Korean defector Song Byeok opening Wednesday in Seoul, would have been unthinkable at the artist’s old job making propaganda posters in the North with slogans like “Let us Exalt the Great Leader.”

Satirical paintings would have gotten everyone in his family “taken somewhere nobody knows about and forced to work until death,” Song said during an interview at his small workspace in an arcade on the outskirts of Seoul.

“Freedom of speech has nothing to do with North Korea,”Song said. “Here in South Korea, people can draw what they want. So every painting reflects the artist’s distinctive personality.”

While still in North Korea, Song saw his father swept away by a current during an abortive attempt to swim a river to China to get food. He said he was later beaten senseless by North Korean border guards and spent six months in labor camp. He defected soon after, in 2002.

Song said he got the idea to draw a satirical painting of Kim Jong Il when he saw Monroe’s iconic pose from the movie The Seven Year Itch. He said Monroe’s attempt to hide what’s below her dress reminded him of what Kim has done to conceal the truth of what’s happening in North Korea.

“It is time to reform and open North Korea, so that poor North Koreans can see what the real world is,” he said.

Song said the art he has made in his new homeland is meant to “show what is inside of North Korea.”

Life is often hard for North Korean defectors in the South. They report difficulty adjusting to their new lives in one of Asia’s richest countries and say they are discriminated against at their jobs and aren’t paid fairly.

Though he has won several awards for his art in South Korea, Song also has struggled. He said he often eats instant noodles to save cash and hasn’t paid rent for his workroom in five months. To afford material for his sculptures and paintings, Song has worked part-time washing dishes and for moving and construction companies.

But money isn’t the goal, he said. “It is much more meaningful to deliver my message through paintings than to earn money.”

The freedom to pursue his art is an important theme for Song, and, at the age of 42, he is still studying painting.

He tells of being shocked in 2003 when he saw a woman in a college class wearing ripped blue jeans, something he had been told by North Korean propaganda was an example of the South’s extreme poverty. The next day, he approached the woman and gave her a needle and thread to mend her pants, not knowing they were an intentional fashion statement.

Although he used to regard his work for Kim Jong Il’s propaganda machine as an “infinite honor,” meant to glorify the man he was taught to revere, he now refuses to label his propaganda posters as art. He merely reproduced pictures he was ordered to work on. “People in the paintings had to seem happy. If not, they would not be published publicly,” Song said.

In the North, he was always “aware of the possibility of danger.” Entire families would disappear if someone “touched on any negative aspects of the ruling party.”

One day in 2000, he and his father tried to swim across the Tumen River in to China to get rice to help feed their hungry family, Song said.

The river was swollen from heavy rain, and his father was swept away. Song ran to get help from the border guards, but they only shouted “Why didn’t you die with him?” before beating him unconscious. He spent six months in a forced labor camp, where he lost part of a finger from an infection and began thinking about defecting, inspired by stories about life in the South.

In Song’s exhibition brochure, the dean of Hongik University’s fine arts graduate school, Han Jin-Man, writes that Song has used his art “to become free from a nightmare that keeps repeating every night.”

“He is paying off an old score in his inner world by expressing” his life in North Korea through humor, Han writes. “He could not live without expressing the trouble of youth directly in his works.”

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-CS-01-26-11 0445EST