There are no artists in North Korea. This is what dissident painter Song Byeok tried to explain to me as we sat in an art gallery in Columbia Heights, surrounded by huge pop art depictions of Song’s oppressed countrymen and their eternal Supreme Leaders.
“Not a single independent artist in the entire country?” I asked.
“There just can’t be. There cannot be,” Song repeated. “When you block someone’s ears and eyes since you’re born, you don’t even think about doing something individualistic like that.”
It’s quite a claim to say that in a country of 20 million – even a prison-state like North Korea – not one person has dared to put ink to paper and create images that aren’t permitted by the government. Underground artists have sprouted even in severely oppressive societies like the Soviet Union and current-day Iran. But then, if anyone is familiar with the inscrutable subject of North Korean art, it is Song Byeok. Once recruited as a propaganda painter for the regime, Song was later imprisoned and tortured by the DPRK after trying to cross the Chinese border to find food. He eventually did escape the country, and now uses his paintbrush to satirize and condemn the regime he was once compelled to glorify.
Song’s most recognizable image, hanging on a nearby wall, is a massive painting of the late Dear Leader donning Marilyn Monroe’s iconic white dress and coquettish pose. Behind me is one of Song’s more disturbing works, a painting of bony-legged, toothless children embracing a bloblike Kim Jong Il as he crushes them in a bearhug. On a nearby table lies what, at first glance, appears to be a traditional Korean ink scrollpainting. But instead of rolling hills and farmlands, it is a panorama of totalitarianism, complete with looming monuments to the omniscient rulers and forced labor camps.
Song’s paintings strike an odd balance between humor and horror. Many evoke the classic pop art style, with solid backgrounds, cheerful commercial allusions, and bright primary colors serving as a haunting contrast to the subject matter.
The artist has a quiet manner, and speaks little to no English. We talked through a translator. On Friday night, he opened his first art expo in D.C. to a packed house, and during our interview on Saturday afternoon people trickled in and out of the exhibit, buying prints of his work.
Despite Song’s artistic training, he claims that he never considered drawing anything anti-government while living in North Korea. Not due to fear of discovery, he explained, but because the independence of thought necessary to create unofficial art simply doesn’t exist in the state.
“The fact is that I would never even think about it,” said Song. “That is why I wouldn’t ever think about the risks.”
The dearth of art may seem like the least of concerns in a country where many die of malnutrition and treatable illnesses. But the physical suffering is only one tragedy of North Korea. Other tyrants have also starved and brutalized the bodies of their own people, but the North Korean government has achieved unprecedented success when it comes to starving its peoples’ minds and souls. The DPRK’s oppression is so total that Song maintains he once couldn’t even fathom drawing anything subversive about a government he eventually risked death and torture to try to escape.
The truth is, nobody – not even Song Byeok – can say with absolute certainty that there are no underground artists inside the borders of North Korea. Though if any exist, we would likely never know about or see their work.
The other alternative, far more unsettling, is that Song is right – that North Korea truly and horribly is the first state in the world where art has ceased to exist.
While Song is now out of the physical reach of the North Korean government, some shackles remain. Even “Song Byeok” is a pseudonym, to protect family still in the country. He says his art has already caught the eye of the upper ranks of the regime, something he’s openly proud of.
Song views his art as more than just a mode of self-expression and catharsis. He acknowledges that his work has a political objective, and says his main goal “is to be able to inform the people about how valuable freedom is.”
That desire extends beyond just North Korea. “The next country I’m planning to portray is Afghanistan, the women in Afghanistan, and the way they’re treated in the name of religion,” he told me, adding that he was disturbed by the fact that Afghan women can be stoned to death for simply running away with someone they love.
But for now, the artist seems preoccupied with his home country, and his hope that “North Korea can get better.” Song says his paintings are ideally intended to reach the public of North Korea, as implausible as that idea seems. “They’ll pass out of shock,” he predicted.
Song said that even in a country without artists, the public would still grasp the meaning of his paintings. “[They] will definitely understand the message,” he told me. “Because unconsciously they do know something is not right in society. That’s why they would understand right away.”