Dissident artist Song Byeok has been named this year’s Global Artist of Distinction, and his story is one of stony resilience in the face of oppression, and art as a form of political protest.
Born into a working-class family in a town outside of Pyongyang, North Korea, Song once worked as an official state propaganda artist. His patriotism turned to disillusionment, however, when the famine of the 1990s hit. Widespread starvation claimed the lives of an estimated 3 million people, including Song’s mother and younger sister. Shortly thereafter, in 2000, Song and his father attempted to cross the Tumen River into China. Tragically, his father was swept away in the river and died, and Song was captured and imprisoned. For six months he endured torture and slave labor, and even injured a finger so badly that it had to be amputated.
Song was eventually released — many prisoners were starving, and were sent home to die — and managed to survive. His resolution to defect remained undaunted, and in June 2001 he finally made it safely to China, and later South Korea. Today he resides in Seoul, where his satirical acrylic paintings (an image of Marilyn Monroe, for example, with Kim Jong Il’s face superimposed), which ridicule North Korea and other oppressive regimes, have gained him international acclaim as both an artist and a creative advocate for human rights and freedom.
Song answered some interview questions for the VCReporter by email, through a translator, a few weeks before ArtWalk 2018.
When did you first start painting? What were your earliest influences?
I’ve always enjoyed drawing sketches on paper at a very young age, and started art class in elementary school. I loved art class and it was one class that I looked forward to every week.
In a 2017 story for the British newspaper The Independent, you stated that you got into painting as a career because your family couldn’t afford to send you to university. How did you learn your craft? Are you entirely self-taught?
The North Koreans are grouped into a set of very hierarchical social groups, so low working-class people like myself are not given the opportunity to get an education; it’d be like catching a shooting star.
You became an official state propaganda artist at age 24. How did that come about?
I was originally employed as a laborer. While I was working, I would sketch in my spare time, and one day, the secretary at the office saw my painting and got me to work as a propagandist.
Can you share something about your experience defecting from North Korea?
I escaped North Korea for the last time in June 2001, when I was 32 years old. A year before that escape (in 2000), my father and I attempted to cross the Duman [also called Tumen] River to China at night, to bring back food for our family. My father got swept away by the waves that flooded in that summer. I reported the incident to the border security guards in the hope that they would help in the search of my father, but instead I was beaten, held in detention centers and persecuted. I felt hopeless and helpless about my life in North Korea so I decided to defect to South Korea.
How were you able to make a life for yourself after defecting — first in China, and then in Seoul? Were there specific people or organizations that helped you?
After escaping from North Korea to China, I was in hiding from the Chinese police. I was fortunate to meet someone that wanted to help me, and with his help I escaped to South Korea in January 2002.
Can you tell us a little bit about what life is like for you in Seoul now?
I feel lucky to have my freedom back, and my life now in Seoul is good. Happy.
Do you stay in touch with anyone from North Korea? How are they?
I am in touch with a few defectors but not many. Most of them have an interaction with many human rights activists. Those, too, have overcome many adversities to escape to South Korea — it’s not easy to defect.
Satire about the North Korean government is your work with which most of us are familiar. Do you turn your artist’s eye on other leaders or regimes? What other subjects do you satirize?
Most of my work is a satire on the North Korean regime but North Korea is not the only subject country I satirize. I will satirize any places that threaten human dignity and strip away the basic freedom and peace of people.
Do you have other inspirations as well? Is there anything you paint that isn’t politically driven? And if so, what is it?
Most of my work has political influence but I also paint pictures of nature. I majored in Oriental painting at the university. Sometimes oriental painting represents attunement to nature.
What do you hope your art can accomplish?
I hope that my work can bring awareness and understanding of the pain and the desperate situations that the majority of North Koreans face today.
What plans do you have going into the future?
I hope that I can continue to travel all around the world and show the importance of human dignity, freedom and peace through my art exhibitions.
What do you plan to do while you are here? What do you hope to share with the art lovers of Ventura County?
First of all, I want to thank Mary Perez and Susan Pollack for inviting me to the city of Ventura and their efforts to make the exhibitions happen. While I’m here, I hope to meet a lot of people and share my art world, and that I can have an impact on bringing their interest in North Korea.
The works of Song Byeok will be on exhibit Oct. 5-7 at Vita Art Center, 28 W. Main St., Ventura. For more information, call 805-644-9214 or visit vitaartcenter.com.